Monday, March 27, 2006

Education in India 2: Does the obvious obviate the need for progress?

This is a topic close to my heart. It has many ramifications, and obviously no clear-cut solution exists. Hirak has penned a succint post, and that goaded me to pen some more thoughts. There was one question in the previous post which I deliberately left open, because I was hoping it would prompt discussion. The question is obviously that of money. But because something is obvious does not automatically justify it.

Let's go to back to our parents' generation. There were no private engineering and medicine colleges then. Many talented graduates studied science and the humanities. I don't know whether it was out of no choice because of the lack of many engineering colleges, or out of deliberate interest. Although the first reason may have contributed, the second reason was also a strong factor. The justification is simple; many of these men and women were rank holders and 'toppers', the cream of the crop in terms of their academic records. They could have easily chosen to go to COEP. Yet they didn't. Why? Well, first of all, there was definitely a smaller fraction of graduates to share the employment pie. The population time bomb was lying relatively dormant then. People could do BSc., go into industry, get a decent job, make a reasonable amount of money, and become vice-president without ever getting an advanced degree. But it was not just that.

What about the ones who went into academics? They knew that they could have made much more money than they would for the next twenty, thirty years. Yet they eschewed industrial or business careers and entered colleges and universities. Why was that so?
I emphatically believe that those men and women looked upon teaching as a noble profession. I can confidently state this point, being the son of two teachers. There is no doubt about the fact that my parents, when they entered academia, looked at education and teaching as a noble profession. They had a deep belief that inculcating knowledge among young students would produce the leaders of tomorrow. And I can also see their disillusionment that monotonically increased over the years. The reasons are pretty clear.
First of all, reservation forever blurred the border between noble intentions and mediocrity. By introducing reservations, the goverment has not only allowed mediocrity, but encouraged it in a wholesale manner. That has completely changed the tone of the educational profession, and in general, I can say that it is no longer a noble endeavor. Just like law and medicine, which swung from nobility to ignominity by making themselves into businesses and encouraging outrageous doses of mediocrity, so did also education. Secondly, the quality and number of students wanting to professionally study the subjects which they were taught also went down. Last but not the least, the number of students who even respected teaching and teachers has declined. The colleges today promote education as a business. With the kind of teachers they have, they don't even do a professional job with that. And the students aptly, as customers, use the system to their benefit to get degrees, and then cast it aside. A nice vicious cycle, one end of which feeds the other. Again, it should be noted that this trend would not have arisen if the government had insisted on high standards for employing lecturers (which existed when my parents took up their posts) and encouraged an atmosphere of excellence. I have said it many times, and I say it again. Fergusson College, COEP, and other esteemed places are esteemed mainly because of the quality of the students, who flock there for the name tag. In themselves, they are not significantly better than other similar institutions.

It is a sordid state of affairs, that most of India's top scientists are people who are close to retirement age. We tout the virtues of India's missiles and India's atomic bomb. We have to remember that almost every significant figure who orchestrated these developments is above 50 or 60 years of age. It is quite clear that in our parents' generation, there was much more of a drive to make the country excel in a sphere of all-round development.

The question was not one of money then. People believed in noble professions, and believed that they would be serving a noble cause if they went into these professions. Then mediocrity took over, and the profession did not remain noble, so no student or teacher was expected to live upto its standards. Therein declines the standards in the whole system.

So I don't think it is as much a question of money, as it is of standards, and the fact that nobody is interested in teaching in colleges and universities anymore. Things changed after our parents' generation. MBA institutes and private engineering colleges sprouted up like mushrooms in the rain. Graduates who went to these institutes were "guaranteed" a decent job. Money really became a factor because of the shrinkage of values in the educational sector and the simultaneous inflation of monetary opportunities in the business and service sectors. No wonder that parents saw it an effective, relatively cheap (!) and lucrative path to a stable life for their protege. And yet I want to ask; how many engineers truly make a significant amount of money and yet do their job with great interest? Or, in the tunnel vision of getting a quick and supposedly secure job, have the standards of parents for their children also declined? Sometimes, the conversations of people discussing their children and their careers gave me the feeling of a bourgeois vision of a safe family, safe career, and safe future. It is as rigid at it sounds sweet. The scenario eerily reminds me of the movie 'Pleasantville', where everybody is happy, smiling, and looks content. But all at the cost of stifling true aspirations, and by encforcing a curious unspoken code of special social conduct and contentment, no matter how restrictive it may be. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but it cannot lead to breakthroughs. And I say this because India on the international stage does seem to be a country that projects itself as one that is geared towards breakthroughs. Can there be scientific, technological, and business breakthroughs without eventual breakthroughs in social makeup?

Globalization in some ways has exacerbated the situation. Call center jobs promise yet another quick fix for graduates with an uncertain future. The possibility to aspire to new standards is obviously a godsend to the many millions whose future is hazy, no matter that those standards are not very high standards. That's because these standards are high for them. Everything is relative, isn't it? I am not belittling any job whatsoever. The issue is about limited and conventional standards that erect a picture that is pretty to some, but inherently finite.

Chetan points out that many parents still enthusiastically attend lectures by the likes of Raghunath Mashelkar and Jayant Narlikar. And yet they don't exhort their children to pursue the same path. One reason simply may be that they realise that it is not in their son or daughter to become a Narlikar or Mashelkar. Even if this were true, I believe it reflects an attitude of automatically stooping to low aims for your children. The other reason may be that parents have bargained standards of excellence for quick, secure, monetarily beneficial careers. I agree that it is in the nature of every parent to choose the 'safe' path for their child. But is it apt for them to extol them to choose the safe path because it is easy? Is it apt to deprive them of choosing their own path in the first place? I do hope that these parents are not the same ones who ask their child to read verses from the Gita and the Manache Shlok, which prescribe a life of hard penance, and most importantly, long term gains. This would be a different version of sparing the rod and spoiling the child.

What I think is (one of) the heart(s) of the matter:
This really leads me to the next point, which I believe is at the heart of this discussion. All the above enumeration may look like a bundle of reasons why nobody studies science or the humanities in India, and it may be seem that I am merely justifying the situation in an organised manner. But I am not justifying it, merely describing it. In one sentence, we can invoke the business like nature of education, the swarm of private colleges that suddenly create new opportunities for almost anyone, the globalization that does the same to many millions more, and the reservation that eats calmly into the edifice of our educational structures- all of these being reponsible for what things are. But there's one simple caveat here:

Just because something is true does not make it right

Beneath each one of these scenarios is hidden an insidious foundation of low standards, declining values, and some downright rash conclusions. Globalization may have brought easy alternatives to many, but does it also lead those many to assume that life is easy? It's simple. If you are getting reasonably good bread after making mildly commendable efforts, would you even aspire to danish pastry and the high standards and efforts that accompany its procurement? I am not saying that people should be forced to aspire for things which they perhaps cannot achieve in their whole life. After all, all men are not born equal, and we have to always keep this sobering truth in mind. But making efforts and not achieving is one thing; doing away with the need to achieve is quite another. I believe that the ugly side of globalization is the complacence it can engender in people through quick fixes. I am not saying that these people don't need to work hard to achieve their goals. I am only saying that with cut and dried goals in front of them, they may not aspire to see further.

All said and done, I probably would be wrong about globalization. It may seem like this march towards short term fixes and inferior long term standards is nothing but a manifestation of capitalist, practical, material-benefit driven thinking. But then how come it did not happen in the US, at least largely? Even today, in the world's 'most capitalist' nation, you find historians, theoretical physicists, musicians, psychologists, and economists of the highest calibre. Granted that according to some, standards are decling for long term general ventures even there. Yet you still find many people who have the intellectual calibre to earn much more money than they do, and yet they follow their heart and excel. One may shrug and say that this is possible because in the US, you can be a historian and still enjoy a standard of living that is much higher than that in India. That is definitely true. But somewhere, I am starting to fear that this state of affairs in our country is the result of the informal dogmatic philosophy that we have ingrained in our minds. Mindsets, after all, come from the people themselves. Could the pursuit of unconventional careers in the US have to do with the basic rights of liberty and freedom that have guided people since their nation's conception? After all, only if there is a general atmosphere of free inquiry and unconventional thinking can people set unconventional examples and explore them. The British achieved great success and produced great intellects through this approach for two hundred years, through the agency of inquisitive, rich Lords. The US produced great intellects through this approach for a hundred years. In both nations, there is a spirit of free inquiry, the spontaneity to not defer to dogma. This also involved not automatically defering to authority. But in India, there are so many mindsets and dogmas, so much deference to cut and dried principles that who can dare to think differently? Who can see beyond the obvious? If the aforementioned state of affairs is the result of the inherently conventional and dogmatic thinking that most Indians do, then it is going to take a long, long time indeed to correct itself. This is the flip side of being conventional; the informal inculcation of dogma and unchanging attitudes. So capitalism does not have to do with us having tunnel vision, convention does.

Let us say for one moment that the practical point of view is the only one that matters. Even from this restricted perspective, the constant trend towards short terms goals and instant gratification (which seems to have become a mantra of the contemporary world itself) can be disastrous. There is plenty of evidence from history. I pointed out in an earlier post that there are scores of examples of research, in science, engineering, and medicine, of ideas that were ahead of their time, that nonetheless were pursued because they were interesting. Many of these ideas gave spectacular returns. Of course, the risk was there, but what truly promising venture does not have risk as an essential component?
So Hirak is right. Mammon rules. But if the citizens even of a country where his sway influences millions more than anywhere else can turn to alternative 'gods', why can't attitudes change in a country which has a glorious and much earlier history of worshipping knowledge. Of course, as is the fashion, we will probably cite our glorious history and use it as a broom to push our present and future under the carpet.
Just because Mammon rules does not mean his word should be law. After all, all the things we aspire to, faith, hope, compassion; all of these have defined our human existence precisely because we managed to stave off Mammon's pernicious intent. Even in the US, the era of instant gratification has sown the seeds of skepticism and doubt in the minds of many, and people are stepping back and taking a second look at industrial as well as academic research.

In the end, hope always survives. Hirak cites the exploratory, an honorable institute that aims at inculcating scientific attitude in school and college students through self-learning, and most importantly, through unabashed questioning and inquiry. More such exploratories will surely nourish the scientific jugular of our nation. But frankly, based on first hand experience, I can say that such enterprises are quite fragile in today's India. The reasons are simple. More often than not, they are begun in the first place by some retired administrator who wants to savor his heyday by engaging in yet one more public venture. The number of actually dedicated personnel at such places is still few. They are the ones who actually bring substance and purpose to the place. But like will o wisps, they have a brief existence in which they make the institute respectable. During this time, they are still fighting against bereaucratic controls. Once they retire (or are forced to leave), the institute reverts back to the original symbolic, poster-boy image which the original administrator wanted to paint. Without consistency, excellence provides a mere moment of ecstasy, which one only hopes will inspire sombody to engage in a more consistent venture.
I agree that there are some signs that are more positive than ones five years ago. Private industry has started providing enough lucrative incentives for Indians abroad to come home. Maybe these compatriots can then provide some nurturing environment for academic science. In fact, it would be quite an achievement if they even raise the status of science as a respectable (and well-paying!) career. Scientists in multinational companies in India at top posts are the only researchers who earn as much as the best paid Indian software engineers. But this is not directly impinging upon academic development right now. I can envisage a breakthrough, if academicians regularly start consulting at companies in the manner of their American counterparts, thus opening up a substantial source of income for them. That should raise the monetary status of science. As of yet, this trend seems neither distinct nor guaranteed.
All this raises hopes. But empirical data, coupled with future plans and promising trends, can be no guarantee for assured progress in the future. In my opinion, India as a scientific nation is poised on the verge of possible advances. But where it is in my opinion right now, is on top of the proverbial transition state, which can go to the products but can very well revert back to the reactants. In the long term, social undercurrents do influence scientific and technological advances. One again only needs to peruse the stories of English aristocrats of the 18th century, who, in their preoccupation with science as a spare, gentelmanly hobby, made spectacular advances in our understanding of nature, both practical and theoretical. History has recurringly demonstrated that two things are necessary for science and knowledge to progress. An allowance by society for free and spirited inquiry, and an emotional social structure that actually encourages this attitude. It would not be remiss to say that constitutional freedom and general freedom of expression does serve as a wellspring for such developments. Sometimes, the simple right to say what one wants, without any fear of persecution, let alone legal action, can influence the guaranteed progress of intellectual thought. We need to put the culture of the so-called 'Argumentative Indian' into actual practice.

The reactive complex that is India is doing a balancing act right now on the top of the hill of destiny. Where it goes will depend on how the equation is balanced...

The points in this post perhaps have been a little haphazard. There are many thoughts, and all of them being important, no tested method exists to organize them according to priority. Maybe I can do that a little better in the next post.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Education in India: Light after the tunnel or tunneling away from the light?

Chemical and Engineering News (C & EN) is the science and technology masthead for the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. In the wake of president Bush's trip to the Taj (the hotel I mean), it has published a special issue about science in India on March 20. Much of the debate centered on points that I have perused once too often. However, I believe they did miss a key point, overlooked perhaps because it is relatively mundane, but in my opinion, of equal or more importance than the ones cited. That point goes much beyond 'mere' science education in our country. But first, let's take a look at what they did say about the state (or the lack thereof) of science, scientific education, and research in India:

1. Sprinting before standing: A few years ago, the eminent scientist and now director of IISc., Prof. P. Balaram, published a perceptive and telling editorial for the magazine Current Science. I always remember the title of that editorial: It was "Sprinting before standing". What Prof. Balaram was saying was that in the Indian scientific community, there is an increasing tendency to leap for high-profile, ambitious goals, without having any firm ground to first stand on. Ambition is one thing. Building colourful castles in the air is another. C & EN describes this situation by enumerating one particular feature of our science universities and especially national laboratories- the big disconnect between the state of the art instrumentation in these institutions, and the relatively sordid state of the most basic infrastructure. For example, national labs in our country today boast of NMR spectrometers, high throughput screening equipment (used to screen potential medicinal compounds), and mass spectrometers worth crores of rupees. Yet, one look at the labs where the students work would send the US Environmental Protection Agency scurrying to get a petition to immediately shut down every lab they can lay their hands on. Many labs, even in our esteemed national institutes, are safety officers' nightmares. I remember the lab in Fergusson College and can vouch for Chemistry, an instructive example since the discipline probably involves handling the most contaminating materials in science. A certain procedure called 'phosphate removal' used to leave the lab enveloped in a thick fog of noxious gas fumes. The same goes for some other supposedly high profile labs. The simple contraption called the 'fume hood' is there for a reason: to carry away noxious elements of a reaction and to spare the health of the experimentalist, the lab, and the environment. In the US, working away from a fume hood is a federal violation. In the lab at Emory University, every undergraduate student had his own hood. In our lab at Ferguson, there was one common hood for about sixty students, a bonafide environmental and health disaster. And note that this has nothing to do with money; how much does it take to construct a couple of hoods? Surely the college can muster up funds for such a basic long-term investment. Anyway, as Balaram says, our problem is that we are reaching for the sun without having a solid earth to stand on. That won't work. No amount of sophisticated instrumentation is going to lead to overall breakthroughs and progress, if the most basic of infrastructure is not in place. It's always going to be a problem if a student records an NMR spectrum on the latest equipment...and then spends a day trying to convince the glassblower to fix his beaker because there's not enough stock of beakers. Before we strive for lofty ends, let us undertake to clean our backyard. Let's not aim to create rocket scientists and not have enough screwdrivers. Let's not expect sophisticated instrumentation to make up for human creativity, creativity that can be engendered only through basic education and infrastructure. We must learn to stand, before we aspire to sprint.

2. The sad story of the post-doc: Excellent point. The efficiency and rate of research primarily depends on post-docs, already well-trained personnel who can (hopefully) churn out publications and results. In India, post-docs are such a neglected breed, that the whole of our scientific productivity depends on PhD. students. But, being one of the oppressed community, I understand that this is unrealistic. PhD. students like me are still learning the ropes, and they cannot be expected to publish high-quality, professional research during their career. But who am I blaming? Even in the US, the state of post-docs is a sorry one, with most of them, no matter how promising, being paid less than even an average professional. In any case, the Indian post-doc scenario leads to almost every above average PhD. student from a good institution to flock to the US for a post-doc. Even if he then comes home, it is the US who ends up marshalling his talents and resources during his time as a post-doc. Unless we provide better facilities and incentives for post-doc, it's really hard for us to be scientifically productive in a progressive manner.

3. The woes of undergraduate research: In India, undergraduate research is virtually non-existent. Already irritated scientists and faculty members have their hands full with their PhD. students, and the last thing they want is an undergraduate meddling in their lab. But this attitude has fostered a complete lack of appreciation of scientific research in science undergraduates, many of whom are not motivated in the first place. In the US, the picture is strikingly different. Undergraduate research is vigorously promoted at most universities, with students regularly doing 'internships' and projects in summer. One can only wonder why in spite of this exposure, very few of them go on to do PhDs. In India, undergraduate research is largely an unknown phenomenon, and unless this changes, not many aspiring youngsters are going to become researchers of any kind.

*The missing point: The point which I found significantly missing in C & ENs exposition is a discussion of the lack of respect for science and humanities in our society, and indeed almost anything that does not involve a professional career. No matter what changes, unless people's mindsets change, nothing will finally ever change. I personally find this to be the single most important lacuna in our lack of progress. Not just science, but the humanities and arts are relegated to inferior levels. In India the traditional view that always prevailed, still largely prevails. Unless your son or daughter is doing engineering/medicine/business, he or she is probably not doing anything worthwhile. Frankly, this single aspect is the one that most draws me to American culture- their respect for every aspect of human intellect, at least by and large. I keep getting appalled by the immense peer and parental pressure that students in school and college face in India, to get into the rat race and get admitted into a professional course. The lack of respect for science, the humanities, and the arts is depressing to say the least and it eventually can forestall the maturation and intellectual development of any state or civilization. Any glance at the history of modern civilization, Eastern or Western, should convince us of the importance of writers, historians, philosophers, scientists, and poets. We tout the virtues of these men and women in textbooks, and yet don't want ones from our own ranks to be among them? It's interesting that in India, every effort to master science and mathematics is made by the young school student, and his parents and teachers are generously encouraging in making him do this. Yet, these subjects are always seen as conduits to a professional career, and never as careers in themselves. Every parent teaches their protege about Newton, Pythagoras, and Darwin, and yet most of them don't want their child to choose a path that would enable him or her to become one of these people. In fact, they actively resist efforts and aspirations on the part of their children to become one of these. Peer pressure and the entire's system's constraints more or less force students to flow with the current. Every facet of of the system contrives to simply not give the chance to a student to leisurely pursue his or her interests. Within the strict boundaries of the syllabus, the excessively deferential attitude engendered towards teachers, and the conformity of peers, many students inevitably become core conformists. The result is a large group of 'professionals' who may not be doing what their heart really wants to. And a nation whose intellectual development is significantly skewed. A few of them do break out, silently endure the system for what it is, and finally cast the system's cobwebs from their mind, pursuing their own path. But that number is truly less. The few of the other kind, who do study science or the humanities, see themselves more as maverick non-conformists who laugh at the system and be their own man or woman. But there exists no nourishing culture, no avuncular fraternity of teachers, parents, and peers, to draw and bind a student to alternative careers. Science, art, and the humanities are social enterprises. Without support, they will wither away like other lone enterprises.
The question is not one of facilities, funding, or even quotas. It is one of respect. On an overall basis, I believe that our country does not respect the arts, humanities, and sciences, as endeavors which can lead to distinguished careers, at least on a professional basis. Compare the general differences in attitude when someone is told that their friend's son or daughter got admitted in a 'famous' college to study computer engineering, as against their attitude when they are told that someone enrolled to do a BA in history out of specific interest. Why should some professions be considered distinguished and others trivial, when humanity as a whole needs every type of intellectual artisan? I have to say that this is an attitude which is largely absent in the US. Even the proverbial dumb blondes, inevitably majoring in Art History, are not despised. Among undergraduates, you find a wide swathe of students majoring in every possible discipline, from history and psychology to international relations and sociology. Harvard and Yale may have their own aura, but as fields of study, none of the above are considered inferior. The US may not be the top producer of indigenous science graduates today, but it definitely leads the world in respecting diversity of careers. I am not being an apologist for the US. After all, many excuses can be made, especially of large populations and money. But changing attitudes doesn't need money, and in any case, we find that in India, money is emphatically not the problem for many of the above scenarios. Mindsets are a problem. We have to understand the miasma of tunnel vision that we are inevitably caught in, and make deliberate efforts to come out of it.
Unless we cast aside stereotypes and recognize the worth of a variety of fountains of knowledge, I don't believe that India will produce a significant number of well-rounded citizens with the sense and sensibilities to make choices and contribute to the fabric of civilization.

C & EN probably did not belabour this point because its editors did not look at the mundane, because it was mundane and uninteresting. But it is precisely the mundane that is the most widespread and significant, in terms of both hope and despair. The silent undercurrent that runs through Indian education will finally determine India's performance at the highest levels. Unless there is a conscious revival of values of respect, I don't believe Indian scientific education can expect great leaps and bounds. Half of India's 1.1 billion are below 25. If things stay the same, it won't be surprising if C & EN finds no reason twenty years down the line to tout the promises and virtues of a smidgeon among those half.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Cold War: A New History- John Lewis Gaddis

The 'dean of American cold war historians', John Gaddis, opens the second chapter of his book with a surreal scenario. Even history buffs like me disbelievingly read the first few lines with consternation, and then the fiction begins to sink in. It's 1950. In response to South Korean and American troops' buildup near the Korean demilitarized zone, the Soviets drop two atomic bombs on two South Korean cities. In response, General Douglas MacArthur takes matters in his own hands and orders the atomic bombing of two equivalent Soviet cities. Escalating the horror, the Chinese prepare to arm themselves with more atomic bombs and answer a blow with a blow...

Fortunately, we know that this did not happen. The Yale historian's point is that it could have, and it's all too easy for us, ensconced as we are in 2006, to look back on those days and underestimate the colours of a very different world from today's. Gaddis's superb and succint cold war history should (finally?) convince us why capitalism is not just about inivisble hands, profit making, and competition. With his lucid prose and authentic historical passages, Gaddis makes it clear that the cold war was not a fight between communism and capitalism, but surely one between democracy and totalitarianism. One of the big questions we ask today is if capitalism and true democracy necessarily go hand in hand. Although a black and white answer to this question is probably still not possible (especially with China always threatening to be a nice exception to the rule), history makes it clear that they mostly have to. The reason is that only free expression and free actions can encourage competitions between every citizen of a country. In case of China, I get the feeling that the world should bide its time...
The cold war, then, was a competition between the wielders of power whose anchor was historical infallibility, and those who learnt from their fallibility.

The first part of Gaddis's book is an eloquent account of 1940s and 50s US-Soviet relations (that inevitably involved the rest of the world). Based on the latest declassified US, Soviet, and Chinese archives, Gaddis narrates the political aspirations, misunderstandings, and convictions of all the major players that defined the era. In doing so, he dispels many illusions that persisted for a long time in the minds of both historians and the lay public alike. These revelations serve as painful reminders of a time when decisions were taken based on ignorance, ignorance that has begat the world in its current state of affairs, and that will resonate in political and social undercurrents for a long time to come. For example, it is now almost a proven, known fact that Joseph Stalin had neither the conviction nor the resources to wage in any significant conflict with the US. In Europe as well as in Southeast Asia, the Tsar of the proletariat deftly played on the many misunderstandings about the Soviet Union and its policies that US officials harboured. Many times these misunderstanding bordered on paranoia about Soviet nuclear attacks. However, these also gave plenty of opportunities and excuses for the Soviets to build more nuclear weapons and advance the cause of Marxist-Leninist principles. Stalin could not have engaged in any conflict during the 1940s and 1950s, simply because his country had fought the most brutal and exhausting war in its history, leading to unbelievable losses of about 10 million lives, both civilian and military (US losses in comparison, numbered a 'mere' 300,000). Much of the Soviet industrial capacity had been destroyed, compared to the then thriving US economy. The morale of the people was still recovering from its nadir, and at such a time, even an iron-handed tyrant like the Soviet premier could not have exercised his will according to whim. At the same time, Stalin was hardly one to shirk from exploiting any opportunity for expanding the sphere of his noble communist principles. Everytime, the shrewd dictator offered the US the bait of imminent communist takeover. Everytime they took it. Of course, there was some justification for the US in doing this, given its fear of communism. What Stalin understood was that he could use satellite communist states for creating a false facade of the so-called 'domino effect'- the belief that once one state is overrun by communists, every state nearby will continue to do so, until an entire continent becomes submerged under the Kremlin's boot. This was not really true. As Gaddis propounds, Stalin found the opportunity to use the aspiring communists Mao Zedong (China), Kim Jong (North Korea), and the tenacious Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) to further his communist interests. Even if their particular communist interests were not simply in being cronies of Stalin, still they were worshippers of the leader of the greatest communist country in the world, and Stalin knew better than not to use their influence to at least project a threat of world communist domination. However, the US kept on misunderstanding motives of these leaders that led to increasing and uncalled for American presence in Korea, Africa, and finally the debacle in Vietnam.

The concept of threat leads naturally to that of non-alignment. Any able military leader knows that psychology plays a pivotal role in influencing the 'enemy's' choices and actions. Stalin understood this better than anyone else at the time, and was a master geopolitical thinker. It is not conflict but the threat of perceived conflict that sculpts international relations. Whereas the US fell for the threat of communist domination, the Soviets fell for that of acute nuclear retaliation. They also used this threat to develop more nuclear weapons of their own. Both powers were kept in check by MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction- wonderfully epitomized in Kubrick's outrageous and all too realistic Dr. Strangelove). After Stalin however, the US seems to have understood this concept only too well, and they implemented it in the form of the well known detente and containment principles which they applied to US-Soviet relations. As for non-alignment, Gaddis lucidly explains how every state from Yugoslavia (Tito) to Taiwan (Chiang Kai Sheikh) to Egypt (Gamal Abdel Nasser) to India (Nehru) exploited and even abused this preorogative to project a different kind of threat; the threat of succumbing to occupation or influence by the other side. I chuckled when I read how this principle enabled these small nations to force the great powers to do a balancing act. It was really simple. What these small states were saying was, if you don't strengthen our economy/give us military aid/quell our political unrest, we may defect to the other side, or at the least, we may get embroiled in civil war which will lead to the other side occupying us anyway. Compelling examples, as Gaddis notes, of "tails wagging the dogs"!

Is is also heartening to see that in many ways, democracy does seem essential to capitalism, at least the 'American kind' of capitalism that we are accustomed to. Give people more choices, allow dissent and constant improvement in the polity, and then only can competition lead to a thriving free market with maximum incentives. It is one of the greatest ironies of history that the very people that communism aspired to free and empower were its greatest and most brutally oppressed victims. The mother seems to have found it necessary to murder her own children to apparently 'empower' them. In the list of genocidal dictators, Marshall Stalin definitely tops the list, surpassing even Adolf Hitler in purging the state of the maximum number of its own citizens and dissidents. Stalin's angel of death was the infamous sadist and rapist Lavrenti Beria, a brilliant operative nonetheless, under whose supervision, something like 10 million 'dissidents' were murdered in the Soviet Union (As much of a monster as he was, credit must be given to Beria for being the administrative architect of the Soviet bomb. See Rhodes). This single fact should convince anyone of the sheer maniacal idiocy of the kind of communism that prevailed during the time. However, it seems that communist leaders have always been in an informal competition with each other to top each other's deeds in mass murder. Where Stalin executed millions in his gulags, his somewhat unwilling protege Chairman Mao gladly implemented an 'experiment' that led to the single greatest humanitarian tragedy of the century; the starvation to death of almost 30 million citizens as a result of Mao's warped execution of collectivized agriculture. I believe that this is the most compelling case against communism; that in every instance, its practioners have had to resort to outright violence and mass murder of citizens in order to 'empower' them. What better demonstration of a failed philosophy than one that needs to actually and paradoxically contradict itself in order to secure itself. Reductio ad absurdum. The very fact that a wall had to be put up in Berlin indicates the inherent dissatisfaction with communism that abounded in people's minds. Unfortunately, the world failed to stop the gory debacle, at least not before the literal factory-like butchering of millions.

There is much in Gaddis's book that is revealing, and I can touch on only a few tidbits here. The revelations stride across well-established notions about well-known events. The Cuban missile crisis for example; contrary to universal belief that the attempt was part of a direct threat to the US by the Russians, Gaddis recounts how it was first and foremost, an attempt by the Russians to provide support for Castro's government, a government in which they first did not believe in, but which they later ecstatically supported with the hope that Castro would set an example and bring communism to Latin America. It is also instructive to note again, how the US and the Soviet Union got embroiled in Castro's grievances in Angola and Ethiopia where they had no business in the first place, and whose sovereignties did not even interest them too much (and apparently don't ever since then). It was not a case of eating the cake, but simply being too terrified of letting the other person eat it. This pattern of preventive (preemptive?) conflict continued into the 70s, in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Nuclear weapons continued to be an ugly motive and part of decision making during the cold war. Even today, we lament how, in the face of these apparent Soviet threats, the US constructed a nuclear arsenal of absurd proportions; meaninglessly more than what it would need to effect deterrence. Some credit must be given to people like George Kennan (containment) and Kissinger (detente) who saw political diplomacy as being more effective than shows of military might. In retrospect, one can only note with irony, that in spite of the US lead in nuclear weaponry and all the hullabaloo about being first in the arms race, it was the USSR which made the first H-bomb that could be delivered by air, and also developed the first ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in 1958, events which massively upped the ante. This made treaties outlawing some or the other aspect of nuclear weapons only partially successful, since because of asymmetry in weapons arsenals or delivery systems, no treaty could bring complete security to either side. And yet the efforts of scientists and politicians who strove to implement these treaties, no matter that they were born out of rightly inculcated fear of nuclear war, should be applauded.

Gaddis also devotes a section to how Americans kept on reinforcing their faith in the rule of law even when their leaders sought it fit to trangress constitutional principles abroad in the name of 'national security'. After all, every president upto and including George W. has been doing it. But the history of cold war America still provides hope that ordinary people's convictions for the overarching importance of constitutional principles over law will finally prevail. Gaddis narrates how Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, all undertook to give explicit or tacit approval for all kinds of covert actions, especially by the CIA. As is known now, this involved everything from government coups to surveillance to assasination attempts. The Bay of Pigs invasion was an embarrassing attempt at toppling Castro's government. In the beginning, people actually supported presidential decisions like these. The apologetic phrase was 'plausible denial', a phrase that I am sure makes the rounds of the administration everyday now. But gradually, and especially when Johnson authorized large-scale Vietnam bombings that escalated the war, people began to take notice and protest. Gaddis notes how Nixon carried the principle to the extreme, when he began to engage in covert action against his own people. That was too much to take for the egalitarian Americans, and Watergate is now history. It is heartening to read this part of American history, where people constantly reminded even the most powerful man in the world, that he is not above the rule of law, that subversive and damaging actions even in foreign lands cannot be justified in the name of national security. Where are those people now?

Interestingly, it is precisely these passages of Gaddis's book that lead me to question his apparent neutrality as a historian in some instances, when he finally comes to the Reagan administration. Gaddis praises this period as the period when common men turned the tables on authoritarian regimes. Gaddis calls these men as unusually proficient- not surprisingly- actors...Gaddis's list of leading men (and the sole woman) includes Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and a host of popular rising leaders from Eastern Europe, whose views were first suppressed, then mildly neglected, and then grudgingly approved by the Kremlin. The reasons for the Kremlin's astonishing transition is mainly, according to Gaddis, the result of a single man's conviction and efforts- Mikhail Gorbachev. Gaddis thinks Gorbachev was the single greatest deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He cites his constant struggles with the Reagan administration, he cites Reagan's cocktail party humour that served to mitigate tensions more than once, and he cites the contribution of all his other actors noted above, all of whom began as common men and women. It's of course encouraging to see that it was the common man who brought about the eventual downfall of Stalin's once brutal regime. The regime had since been gradually but surely made more tolerant by every successive Soviet leader, either because of genuine concern, or mostly because of accomdations with the West that became necessary for diplomatic and economic purposes. But it was Gorbachev who finally drove the nail into the coffin, or at least handed over the nails to his successor Boris Yeltsin. It seems that many times, he did this simply through inaction. In 1989, the Chinese were the sole officials to use brutal force to suppress the Tiananmen square protests. No such thing on a comparable scale happened during that decade in Eastern Europe, although opportunities were plenty. Everywhere, people were destroying once venerated symbols, breaking down barriers, and cutting through barbed wires. For the Soviet Union, it had become both infeasible and too costly, to keep on maintaining its sphere of influence. Reagan and Bush took full advantage of this. In witty, idealistic, even religious speeches, Reagan denounced the 'evil empire'. But what about Reagan's own evil actions in Latin America, where he was following the tradition of his predecessors to suppress left-wing uprisings and install right-wing governments, no matter how oppressive? What about the Iran contra deal? I was struck by the fact that Gaddis does not devote much space to these discussions. And then it struck me that maybe I was expecting too much from the man, when I found out that he is an active supporter of George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Since history has repeated itself, there is no reason, I suppose, for Gaddis to change his views.

The most striking insight to come out of Gaddis's book was the reasons he explores for assesing capitalism's success. Granted that democracy was more successful than domination. But after all, everybody since Marx had believed that capitalism would end up causing conflicts between capitalists, and that collapse and revolution would have to take place sooner or later because of inequality between the rulers and the ruled. And we do have to admit that the twentieth century was much more of a century of totalitarian regimes. What happened then?
What no communist visionary had banked on was the self-correcting, progressive nature of modern capitalism. The real difference between the two systems is that of dogma versus flexibility, what Gaddis calls 'spontaneity'. As a scientist, I appreciate this eternal skepticism and lack of deference to authority. Communist nations have justified their actions and dreams mainly on the basis of anecdotal evidence from history and historical infallibility. Capitalist nations have always learnt from their mistakes and have never tried to assume systems as being foolproof. They have made concessions to workers, the poor and the oppressed, and have strived to raise living standards for the unfortunate. When capitalism realised the macabre circumstances which impossible war reparations enforced upon Germany in the aftermath of the first world war- an experiment that finally went horribly wrong- it learnt from its mistake and implemented the Marshall Plan for the restoration of Europe. Capitalism, in this guise, is hardly the capitalism Marx, Lenin, or Stalin imagined and opposed. In fact, we get the feeling that Karl Marx would have been profoundly disappointed with the communism of Lenin and Stalin. The very fluidity of capitalism ensures its constant self-appraisal and development. And that again reinforces the connection between capitalism and democracy that has been noted. Without freedom of expression and the power to make choices, without agreeing to disagree with each other, how can there be progress? Finally, it simply does not seem that communism is compatible with human nature. How can someone ever have the incentive to progress if the state is confiscating part of their wealth everytime they earn it, in the name of bringing about 'equality'? Growth needs incentives, and those incentives lie in unlimited possibilities, not unyielding consequences. Modern day capitalism may not have great equality to begin with. But it does have equal opportunities; equality exists at least as a realistic goal. Freedom only cements this edifice.
Gaddis says that even as late as 1950, writers were questioning the apt definition of democracy; is it freedom without equality, or equality without freedom? In the communist bloc, it seemed that leaders were prepared to sacrifice freedom for the proverbial equality that their philosophical fathers advocated. But in reality, not even equality remained in the end. No freedom, and still no equality. Only the shrads of textbooks and manifestos that propounded lofty principles. A grotesquely failed enterprise indeed.

Gaddis says in his preface that many American students today have scant knowledge of, and interest in, the struggles that underpinned the existence of two superpowers for almost fifty years. Gaddis rightly says that instruction in this history is important, because it illustrates how flimsy even assured perspectives and predictions can be. I believe it is important for another reason. Twentieth century history has shown that democracy with all its merits, is neither infallible nor inherently strong and influential. Why else would the century have been dominated by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot? The self-appraisal of capitalist states that Gaddis expounds on is probably not just a key feature, but an essential one. Democracy seems to be like a tightrope walker. You have to keep balancing, keep asking, keep doubting and progressing, simply to stay in the act. Excelling takes even more efforts. Bad democracies are as prone to totalitarian takeovers as completely devastated nations. Progress does not ensure stability. No matter what percentage of the population is educated, no matter how modern thinking is, no matter how generously wealth is distributed, war and collapse can be surprisingly close for any nation (look at Germany in the twentieth century). Democracy in principle faces the same danger of succumbing to a notion of historical infallibility that communism did. And the more democracy succeeds, the more this danger actually becomes realistic. The message of self-improvement and 'spontaneity' is the one that seems be the most enduring in Gaddis's book. In current circumstances, I believe it has become even more timely, because we longer live in a world that is divided more or less unambiguously between 'bad' communists and 'good' capitalists. The demons we fight today seem to be the ones from within. These would be the toughest to identify in the first place, which is all the more reason to keep the message in mind. History should help us to do that.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Frankly, I had never listened to a single Johnny Cash song until I got intrigued by Hirak's post on the man. And I was quite impressed. I downloaded some of his songs and since then, I have found myself regularly listening to them. The first one I listened to was the famous 'I walk the line'. As as been noted, the thing that struck me the most was the sheer simplicity of the lyrics and music. No gimmicks, no guitar or orchestration fillers. Cash sounds simply like a 'been there done that' guy. A man who sang because he felt like it, that's it. Simple. I think I would like to call Cash the 'Kumar Gandharva of western music'! In this age when complexity so overwhelms us that we simply cannot see the trees for the forest, it was refreshing to listen to the Man In Black. '25 minutes to go', 'It ain't me babe', 'I fought the law', 'Burning ring of fire' are but some of his renditions that I found salutary. It sounds like music you want to listen to when you want to contemplate or just unwind at the end of a complicated day.

Cash's voice itself is earthy, somewhat crude, but boasting a melodic richness that's quite unique. Again, his singing is simplicity itself, and you cannot make out any attempts at fashion in it. Cash sounds like a man who sings only for himself, and yet without a trace of selfishness. The songs have still to sink in, but the style of some of the songs made me think right away about Bob Dylan, until I realised that it was Dylan who sounds like Cash, since Cash came first. Many of his songs also have the classic 'on-the-road' quality that evokes vintage nostaligia and a yearning for a simple life. The Beatles also have made simple music, but because their lyrics and background notes are quite profound and complex sometimes, they don't always end up staying simple. A few of Cash's songs at some level also reminded me of the transcendental quality that is present to a lesser extent in Coldplay's music.
I also happened to chance upon a telecast of an old Cash show in Switzerland. The simplicity in his voice and music was neatly reflected in his bearing on stage. Dressed in his quintessential black, Cash did not indulge in any frills; no going down on knees with contorted facial expressions, no acrobatic guitar balancing, no deliberate efforts at constant communication with his fans. Just him, his guitar, and his voice. Minimum style, maximum effect. And yet you cannot but be impressed and Cash cannot but help endear himself to you. I look forward to listening to more of Johnny.

All throughout history, there have been emergent movements- Renaissance, Impressionism, Classicism, Romanticism- which have engulfed entire genres of the arts and have spanned much of social thinking and influenced cultural trends. Today, I think we are in need of an emergent movement of 'Simpleism'. Music like that of Cash is a good augury. Maybe it will help us revive simplicity, and hopefully before everything becomes too complicated for us to even appreciate that increasingly rare quality.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Meine Damen und Herren, let me introduce Artharaja (not his real name of course), my cousin, a true professed book lover like many of us, and extremely well-versed in many topics of broad sweep, including religion, politics, science and philosophy. Not to mention the more humdrum fields of economics and finance that constitute his profession.;-)
I have always been impressed by his knowledge of religion, and especially Hinduism and Christianity. I doubt that even practising members of these respective sects know that much about where they are coming from (and going to).
His other incarnation is Dharmaraja, where he blogs more about religious matters. Among notable reads are some of his posts in which he explains Hindu mythology and customs to his friends in the Western hemisphere, and other ignoramuses in the East like me.
For some godforsaken, impenetrable reason, he prefers to blog on bloopdiary rather than blogspot, although he occasionally updates his blogspot base.

He writes a comprehensive entry on the India-US nuclear deal, and how it casts us in a favourable light, bringing us the recognition as an exceptionally stable democracy that we have been. I concur. We should also get much needed electronics and other kind of technology, which until now could always be connected with bomb-building in a roundabout way and therefore denied to us. In fact I think that may be the real benefit.

Nice new blog to further the efforts to polish Chemistry's shoes, press its clothes, and give it a facelift...all of which is completely unnecessary of course if the public does not keep associating the science with oil spills, toxins in the environment, gucky green goblins in the lab, and "environmental pollution".

Nature introduces The Skeptical Chymist. The title comes from a little quaint book by the same name published by the 'Honourable' Robert Boyle, the father of chemistry, who demolished Aristotle's four-elements dogma and established the Royal Society in 1660.

Comes on the heels of the American Chemical Society's national meeting in Atlanta on March 26th (which reminds me to get back to work on the poster that I am presenting...)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blank Noise is better than Loud Silence

The Blank Noise project has done a worthy service in its own way to increase awareness about eve-teasing, a phenomenon that curiously seems to be especially prevalent in our country. Many excellent thoughts have already been penned, and many thought provoking as well as disturbing incidents have been recited. I can hardly add to this list, but I would simply like to pen down a few random thoughts in the form of observations, opinions and reiterations. These are my personal opinions of course.

One thing is sure; eve-teasing is a crime that has become so normal in India that it is hardly looked upon as a crime. Only the girls and women who go through it can recount the humiliation they face. One point that came across frequently from many posts is that eve-teasing seems to be a hallmark particularly of our country. I think that's true. On the other hand, I also think that eve-teasing is only a physical manifestation of thoughts that lurk in the mind of men everywhere, irrespective of country or creed. That is not to say that most men think of leering at or getting close to a girl the moment they lay their eyes on her. I just believe that the proportion of potential eve-teasers is much more than than the proportion of actual eve-teasers. I think that there are several reasons why eve-teasing is much less common in the western world, or to focus on a limited but important example, say in the United States. For one thing, the law and order situation in the US is much better than in most other countries, and a would be eve-teaser can expect his 'victim' to possibly rain down on him like a ton of bricks, armed with the tried and tested American tradition of sueing. That for sure could be an effective deterrent for him to mind his own business. Office and corporate harrassment suits abound in the US, and nobody would be foolish enough to get embroiled in one of them. I remember a time when, in the bus to campus which I catch daily, a man accidentally brushed against an Indian friend of mine. The act was definitely accidental, but even then, the man half-jokingly asked my friend, "I hope you are not going to sue me for that".
The wicked American lawyer may have at least one good deed under his belt in his lifetime- that of having unknowingly deterred eve-teasers.

A more important reason may have to do with gender equality. There are two ways in which the social status of women has been relegated to low levels in our country. One is through downright mistreatment, and the other is through patronization, which is equally worse if anything. Incidentally, this is also a quality which we share with other cultures, except that it seems to have endured to a greater extent in our country. Eve-teasing usually is a symbol of the power status and sheer condescension with which men regard women. But it can also be an assertion of the patronization that has been deep-rooted in our history as a veiled form of condescension. Because there is so much more gender equality in the US (or at least much more perceived gender equality), what we call eve-teasing may be not so much a sign of the more decent nature of men, but a sign of the fact that it's not regarded to be a big deal; they don't look at women either as objects of disparagement or as objects of patronization (so there's a benefit of doubt for the men here!) In India, eve-teasing commands special attention for the perpetrator precisely because he views the girl in front of him as a puny being who will walk away from his lascivious gaze with a sense of resignation; it's the feeling of being powerfully different that goads the eve-teaser on. In the US, it's simply not a big deal for a man because his perception of the women in front of him is very different. What has brought about this perception? Things like the sexual revolution of the 60s, educational opportunities, the relative separation of church and state,a basic embodiment of equality in the constitution, and many other large-scale cultural factors. This makes me think that eve-teasing may be a phenomenon that is a result of a whole set of cultural factors, definitely including historical ones. This may prevent the eve-teasing urge inherent in the minds of men in western societies to get translated into action.

Does that mean that eve-teasing, being a product of so many unique cultural biases, will always be a part of our Indian cultural makeup? After all, even in the US, with such a glorious tradition of equality in principle, it took hundreds of years for women to stand shoulder to shoulder to men in every sphere of professional life. In our case, this observation seems to indicate that we may never get rid of eve-teasing. And this is where I think, we can expect the unexpected, the break from the social logic that the above set of factors seems to necessarily imply. The most encouraging fact that emerged from the posts to support this, was the number of instances where someone took a stand, either the girl herself, or some passerby, and condemned the action, threatened the wrong-doer, or called the police. The point is that every eve-teaser, no matter how shameless, knows that what he is doing is not acceptable to society. Unfortunately, with our complacence, we have created the illusion that it is. Once our objection manifests itself in such an incident, it becomes clear to the miscreant that people around him are taking note and disparaging him. I believe that the culture of eve-teasing will definitely ebb and hopefully disappear if everyone who is involved in an eve-teasing incident raises their voice. It may just take a little bit of charity and courage for us to do this.

Lastly, it is a foregone conclusion that pseudopuritanical organizations like the Shiv Sena simply must be neglected. Anyone who puts the blame for a rape or a molestation on a girl with the argument that she was 'dressed inappropriately' deserves condescension to the point of neglect. Note that here, there is a difference between condemning the girl's dressing sense and putting the blame on her. It is a different question, and could even be a valid matter, to berate a girl who walks into a college wearing the skimpiest of clothes (free-will notwithstanding). It's quite a different and downright wrong thing to say that this justifies eve-teasing. Also, the statistics reject this argument, because after all, the proportion of actual eve-teasers is still low on a relative scale. How many times have skimpily dressed girls walked in front of me and my friends? (Not too many times actually, at least in India!) But not once have I even stared in a noticeable way at such a girl, and with few exceptions, neither have my friends. The ones who did stare were quite surely looked down upon. And nobody has ever passed loud comments or whistled. I believe that there is always some implicit sense of social decency that keeps us respectable. And I am not saying the above to justify my own decency, but in fact to put forward my belief that many men are that way, at least ones I know. Also, the 'middle-class-educated-family' argument is not the convincing one. Our parents never explicitly told us not to eve-tease girls. Not once. Respect for women was ingrained in our minds in a tacit but firm manner. Although the number of potential eve-teasers are large, I also believe that the number who curb these throughts out of respect and decency if they start to take root in their minds, is also quite large. And that actually increases our responsibility of speaking out if we witness such an incident.

On a practical note, the immediate and very effective thing which girls can do to curb eve-teasing, is carry around a mace spray. It's cheap, effective, and it really hurts; the perpetrator will certainly not forget the incident in his lifetime. Most importantly, any girl can exercise this right immediately, without waiting for condemnation or action from any passerby. On a different note though, why are mace sprays not already common in girls' purses in Mumbai and Delhi? Or packets of chilli powder ala 'Mirch Masala'?. If the plucky women of colonial India can set a precedent, why can't their modern counterparts uphold it? This observation may again compellingly point to the fact that most people simply don't see eve-teasing as a crime or at least a gross misdemeanour, which should be acted on in a tough and effective manner. Most people still take eve-teasing for granted, as a necessary nuisance which one should simply live with and not take too seriously. Maybe the girls who do feel like dumping chilli powder into eve-teasers' eyes, because of society's discouraging attitude towards the problem, simply feel too guilty or scared about engaging in the act. That's got to change. Eve-teasers, and especially the more malicious among them, deserve all the capsaicin they can get.

The bottom line; eve-teasing is definitely a crime, and it is also definitely considered normal in our society. It has persisted only because we, although we do have the sense of decency by and large, have not explicitly spoken out against it. I believe that active dissent and action will definitely curb this thorn in our society's side. Kudos to the girls in the posts who spoke out and acted. I hope I will act, in one way or the other, when I witness such an incident in the future. I hope we all will.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


It's been about 3 years since I started off as a PhD. student, and by this time, I have become as they say, a sadder but wiser man. Even the perpetual reading about science and scientists that I indulged in ever since a kid is no match for what the flavour of scientific research actually tastes like. So here is a distillation of some common lessons that I learnt through rather uncommon and meandering, not to mention excruciating, ways. More will be forthcoming, of course, as I suffer more:

1. Research involves ideas, not answers: Probably the hardest thing to come to terms with. Unfortunately, the way we are taught science in school and college is as a set of results, theorems and laws. Start doing actual research, and one quickly realises that about ninety percent (and I am being highly optimistic here) of research is clerical work, donkey work, monkey work, whatever you would like to call it. It is the last ten percent that scientists usually can die for. But most of what is routinely done is a far cry from the world of cut and dried facts that are encountered in textbooks. The average scientist or student can well spend spend most of his or her time in going down blind alleys, solving mundane but intractable problems that seem to have sprung up out of the blue, troubleshooting errors that don't even seem related to what you are doing, and most excruciatingly, getting unexpectedly stranded at the very beginning of a project for ages so that it seems that you are never ever going to progress to the juicy, creative part. In fact, this is the single most important situation that drove me to tears; getting stuck up with something that I least expected, that is the most boring yet essential part of the project, and that by itself is anything but creative work as such. You tend to lose all hope if the beginning is where you seem to be stuck till the very end. And yet, you have to endure.

In a nutshell then, if you don't enjoy the doing much more than the fruits, which would be rare if they exist in the first place, research is not for you. If you think that you want to do research to build a better washing machine or mouse trap, or to mix more nutritious cereal, or to find quick fixes for practical problems plaguing humanity, think again, at least if you are thinking about academic research. That might never happen possibly till you are halfway through your career, and possibly till your grandson is halfway through his. Moreover, since science has become a highly collaborative effort these days, it is very rarely that one gets to sample a Eureka Moment, when he can revel in the ecstasy of an idea that is his and his alone. Enjoy the labours more than the fruit then, and don't expect practical results unfolding daily before your eyes. Throw in an infinite reservoir of patience and tolerance, and you could be well on your way to becoming a scientist. Otherwise, GE, IBM (Google?) and Lucent Technologies always beckon you, but most of what the public perceives of these companies is definitely not the kind of research I am talking about here. So that's a different ball game you want to be involved in then.

On a side note, there was a time when high quality academic style research was being pursued in these corporations. Note the bonanza of physics Nobel prizes gathered by IBM in the 80s for example. But predictably, as companies became more enamoured with stock holders than with the fruits of pure research, so have the standards of pure research in these companies declined over the years, and in fact that's a rift in American science that is being vigorously discussed today.

One key fact that today's politicians and administrators should keep on reminding themselves about, is that it is a hard and proven fact that most research that is hazy and improbable in its time usually turns out to have practical consequences, and sometimes enormous ones, in the future. The atomic bomb, microwave devices, semiconductors, medicines, MRI, lasers, and genetic engineering are but a few examples of the kind of research that started off as mere curiosity in the ways of the natural world, and led to multibillion dollar practical technologies.

2. It's hard to know what's important: James Bryant Conant holds the distinction of being one of America's top notch organic chemists, president of Harvard, and one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project...all this being possible in the 1930s of course. When his student Frank Westheimer, again a Nobel calibre chemist, went to him with an idea for a research project he had, he was told that if he was successful in the project, he would be a "footnote to a footnote" in the history of science. While Westheimer did turn out to be much more than a footnote in his career, the message here is clear and has been enumerated by a number of successful researchers- 'Work on important stuff'.
While it's easy to inculcate this Olympian ideal in your mind, it's only when you start doing research that you realise with a lot of consternation and ask the question- 'What's the important stuff??'. Usually, your advisor would have an idea about what's important. But more often than not, you may also land up with some speculative project that, IF successful, MAY turn out to be quite important. But science and progress being what they are, it's naive to expect that all these ifs and mays would materialize and especially till the end of your PhD. The compensation for this uncertainty, as I can testify to a minor extent, is the joy of discovery, no matter how trivial, and the excitement about the future that is compunded with the uncertainty. Also is the compensatory feeling that what you are doing is a part, no matter how small, of a grand enterprise that will bear frution someday. Moreover, echoing good old Tom's words, if you survive the tears and the frustration, maybe you too can beam with triumph someday and say "I have not failed...I have found ten thousand ways that do not work". But try telling that to your PhD. committee.

In my own experience then, most of the work I have done until now has involved mainly groping in the dark, massive amounts of clerical work that never end, and frustration heaped on top of more frustration. Why then, do we do this? Ask why people climb mountains, collect insects in the Brazilian rainforest, compose poetry, wait for eternity to meet their loved ones, arduously spend a Sunday in baking that exotic dish, and prove three hundred year old equations with no practical significance whatsoever, and we see the answer. It's the joy of the discovery that counts. But like other contrasting qualities, it's value is felt only when you go through its other wicked half- pain. And once in a while, yes, we do end up discovering a new kind of microwave oven too...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Excavating through calories of joy...

Few food items give you such an interesting experience as fruit-on-the-bottom yoghurts. And I choose my adjectives carefully. Eating one is like exploring a new country full of untold riches, and finding sparkling treasures at the end of it, that nonetheless have left enticing clues about ther existence right from the beginning.

At the beginning, at the top, is just plain old yoghurt, a little boring but sweet and typically yoghurty. Then, as you dig deeper into the enigma, the first faint stirrings of more hopeful sights and flavours start manifesting themselves. The signature smell of peaches...or was that strawberries?....reveals itself, but it has no more than a Cheshire cat existence. And the colour? For a moment there, you thought you saw a pink or a yellowish tinge, but that was probably the result of staring too long and too lovingly. However, your best hopes slowly start delightfully materialising as a microscopic shred of fruit that has somehow broken free from its mates and diffusingly made its way to the surface, winks at you and confirms the rich tapestry that it is a part of. The colour too, has become louder and more welcoming than before, signalling more hope and inspiration. Finally, when you have already become quite starstruck by this gradual accruement of sensory delights, the complete manifold of sights, smells and flavours reveals itself with a trumpeting flourish. Behold the sheer conglomerate that is fruit pulp!
What a fitting end to this adventure that has made you delirious with cals and kilocals. Let it flow on...