Wednesday, August 30, 2006


The July 2006 issue of Physics Today finally published the letter about Nobelist Hans Bethe that I had sent them last year after Bethe passed away. Quite graciously, they hung on to it because they did not have space to publish it then, and then published it now after more than a year.

Incidentally, Bethe himself has written some fine articles in Physics Today during his lifetime, including ones on fusion, supernovae, and the German atomic bomb project.

Another piece of news: New book on Hans Bethe, 'Hans Bethe And His Physics' due to be published on September 30.

(Click on letter to read other tributes)

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Monday, August 28, 2006

A friend forwarded me the following joke, which was clearly intended to be a joke.

"The Japanese have developed a camera with a shutter speed so fast, that it can actually take a picture of a woman with her mouth shut."

I laughed and forwarded the email to a couple of my labmates, again, clearly intending it to be a joke. To my surprise, I received a reply from all three of my female colleagues, saying that they found the joke offensive. I have worked with them for three years and we know each other well, so that surprised me even more. I told them that I had not made it up and that I had really intended it as a joke. I apologized to them. But this makes me think, and I am this different in the United States? Are modern American women particularly sensitive to such humour, which they think somehow threatens their individuality and/or freedom? Somehow, I get the feeling that I would not have gotten this reaction with my Indian friends who are girls.

This reminds me of Richard Feynman's experience in Japan, where a Japanese maid in a hotel accidentally walked on him coming out of the shower. He thinks that if this had happened in the US, there would have been shrill screams and a lot of hulabaloo. But the Japanese maid just excused herself and walked out. I also have read other accounts where American women seem to make a big deal out of such things (even if maybe the shower thing was really an unfortunate accident). I wonder if this is the correct reaction, or whether there is an inbuilt sense of exaggeration in them. I am not at all accusing, and I don't want to offend anyone. I am just trying to understand cultural differences.


What exactly is 'brain gain'? People who come back to India to act in Bollywood, who come back tempted by multiplexes and malls? The BBC has penned an article on Indians coming back to their country, which disappointed me. The kind of people who they have interviewed seem to be almost exclusively people who are rich and who want to come back to India only because they want to remain among India's rich and elite. Of course there's nothing wrong in wanting to be rich or stay rich, but is the sampling of the views of such erstwhile citizens a clear indication of 'brain gain'? What about those middle class people in different professions like medicine, science, or humanities, or journalism? Do they want to come back? I don't see the BBC interviewing someone who wants to come back because they think they will actually get better opportunities here, or lead a more hassle free life here. After all, many of the problems facing the majority of Indians don't matter for those in the upper echelons of affluence. What's the point of interviewing only such people and concluding that we are now facing a significant 'brain gain'? Also, considering the present situation, there is no guarantee that such a brain gain, even if it exists, will not again trickle down and stop.

Sometimes, I can imagine a twenty second century history book. We get to the chapter on Asia, and here's what we find:
"For a moment, India seemed to be on the verge of being the next superpower. With a bustling economy and tremendous professional manpower, it seemed to be on the threshhold of taking over the world. But soon, it became clear that unless the roots are sturdy and hold strong, the tree can only aspire to reach out to greatness. As the world watched, the quagmire of political corruption, caste conflict, and religious differences, all of which riddled Indian society at every level like holes in a mold infested carpet, pulled down this Phoenix. Obscure definitions of national interests drove the suppression of individual rights. Interests ignited by historical wrongs gained supremacy, no matter how many future wrongs they would engender. Many again started migrating in hordes to the west. As the Indian phoenix strove and almost seemed to rise from the ashes, a new fire kindled by base politics, complacency, and selfish interests dragged him back into the ashes. The dream that almost seemed to be transformed into reality, finally disintegrated over its own horizon with a whimper"

Thursday, August 24, 2006


A few weeks ago, I narrated a current and hot controversy in the world of chemistry, in which a chemist named James La Clair who claims he has synthesized a complex molecule may not have synthesized what he said he has. The controversy is particularly gratifying for me the green computational chemist because computational methods were used to gain the crucial insight into the fracas, which led the way to the debunking of the synthesis. I have been following this controversy quite closely for as long as it has been hot. I wrote a post, spewed comments on other blogs, and discussed the brouhaha with friends and my advisor, and spotted one or two additional mistakes in the paper. How the paper went through the acid tests supposed to be devised by editors and referees remains a mystery to me. Either the tests were not acidic enough, or James La Clair and the referees were regular Sunday tennis partners.

A friend asked me today what I would say if La Clair turned out to be right after all. I said that I would be fascinated rather than galled. How many times in the history of science has a scientist who has been shunned, heavily criticised and lampooned, and ostracised, proved that he has been right? Jan Hendrik Schon and Hwang Woo-Suk certainly did not do it.

Now, I get to write about the controversy as well as wear it. An enthusiast from the University of California Irvine, the home of chemist Scott Rychnovsky who first shed doubt on the work, has come out with a T-shirt with the structure of the molecule on the front, with the Nature title 'The proof is in the product' below it. I have promptly ordered it, and chagrined chemists can see me in a few weeks wearing a T-shirt with a wrong structure printed on it. Now let's see how much fire hexacyclinol can stand when I plunge it into the washer bleach. Bring it on!

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This should be a nice memoir for me, and I will have a story to tell my grandchildren (or not)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


A reader writes in to ask Noam Chomsky about the declassification record in the US. One of the questions he asks is how Chomsky, when he reads something, knows if it is important or not. Well, Chomsky's powers of retention, organisation, and comprehension are extraordinary, and sometimes beyond belief for me. The information which he carries in his head is prodigious beyond normal comprehension. He can cite literally dozens of references for almost every statement he makes. One is free to go and check those references, and many of them are easily accessible. He seems to have almost everything published in every mainstream or sidestream newspaper, magazine, or book in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, right in his head. In one case (I believe it was 'The Chomsky Reader'), they had to publish an entire separate small book only to list his references. I wouldn't even dream of proselytizing even a hundredth of the amount of information which he has acquired, in my whole lifetime.

To be frank, I think that this is the real quality that makes Chomsky such a formidable and unbeatable opponent in debate. It is hard to win an argument against him, not because he is right all the time, but because it is simply impossible for one to summon the kind of references that he does for reinforcing one's argument. Of course, sometimes speakers can use this as a cover for their lack of credibility, but that's generally not the case with Chomsky, as most of his references are verifiable. As an aside, this quality of his also makes some of his books pretty dense to read, and readers who are not seriously and specifically interested in the particular topic under consideration can be put off. That happened to me recently when I started to read his 'Fateful Triangle'. I collapsed with exhaustion after just two chapters. On the other hand, that is what makes his collections of interviews valuable, where you can get the highlights without the details.

However, the question asked to Chomsky brings up a more general question. In this age of almost pathological information explosion, how does one acquire the ability to discern and retain the important information? As Chomsky himself attests (and I am happy he cites the example of chemists!), his job is similar to that of scientists, who have to wade through thickets of information every day, and decide what's important. One of the most important conditions for such a feat is simply hard work, and Chomsky's wife says that much of his erudition stems from the sheer and tremendous amount of time that he spends on getting his facts.

Scientists and research students also face a similar problem, and especially people like me who are interested in general reading about their subject. Every week, thousands of pages are published on every conceivable aspect of even your own particular discipline. The problem is, most of them are ordinary. Or are they? The even bigger problem is, most of them are ordinary, yet, because no one can predict what piece of information can be useful to you in getting insight, they still may aid you in your work. And because such a source of insight is inherently unpredictable, you can never predecide what may be important. So how do you discern the wheat from the chaff, especially when the chaff is wheat in disguise? I have thought of a few approaches that might help, that I myself try to follow:

1. One strategy I use is to keep track of the world's leading researchers. The ISI highly cited website, although not perfect, lists the top scientists in your field in the last twenty years or so, along with their references. I have made a directory which lists their websites, and I periodically take a look at their publications. It's not like everyone else except them is doing unexceptional work, but it is more likely that they are working on important problems. It is more likely that they define the frontiers of the field. As one famous biochemist put it, you are probably going to spend equal time working on trivial as well as important problems, so you might as well try to work on important ones. What those important ones are can be gleaned from the work of the 'luminaries'. Then one may also take a look at lesser known scientists who are working on similar problems, and try to follow the branches of the tree as further down as one's time and patience can allow.

2. Even in science as elsewhere, research ability is hardly commensurate with power of cogent expression. Among top scientists, there are a few who don't just do great science, but who are exceptionally clear in expressing themselves. I have made a separate list of such people. I especially look for recent reviews written by them, and usually find that reading those reviews is a rewarding experience in both knowledge and comprehension.

3. When I skim through paper titles, I try to look for titles that reflect investigations of a general nature. Once you understand a general principle, that can provide comprehension of many specific examples. A particular system is inevitably used for studying that general principle. But many times, the title makes it clear that the research work undertaken is with a view to fully understand a general phenomena (and sometimes it is not...). Since a lot of chemistry, for example, can be evoked with a few central principles, any paper dealing with the investigation of such a principle catches my eye, and it is likely to be fruitful for insight into my problem.

4. One of the leanings I try not to follow, is to get tempted by a title simply because there's some catch phrase in it, like 'cancer', 'alzheimer's' or 'nanotubes'. Although I do pay special attention to such 'hot' topics, hot topics generally come with a caveat; while they are hot and may signal breakthroughs, there are also way too many bottom feeders (such as myself) who are working on them because they are hot. In such cases, it especially becomes important to pay more than usual attention to the topics, simply because there's so much published on them that may or may not be important. Of course, journals like Nature or Science who publish on such topics usually will deliver the goods. But there are so many other journals with papers on such topics, which may be hot or not. Some of the most cited papers in scientific history, including those involving Nobel Prize winning work, have not been published in Nature or Science. Also, it's now a well known fact that researchers may establish a tenuous connection of their project with some buzz word (most likely a disease) to get more credibility to secure grants (and these days, you can hardly blame them). So pay attention to, but also beware of that hot stuff!

5. One of the problems that we always encounter is the fact that because most of the important problems in science today are interdisciplinary, you cannot predict from what quarters the next breakthrough in your problem will come from. You may be working on a problem in cell biology, and voila!; a physicist suddenly publishes a radical insight into that problem. To a large extent, this problem is intractable, because it's impossible (and extremely unwise) to try to keep track of all approaches to your problem. But because you are trying to solve the problem, what's really important for you are the conclusions. So even if you don't understand the approach to your problem adopted by the scientists from other fields, you should definitely try to at least understand the conclusions, and their implications for your work.

More often than not, these rules of thumb don't help me a great deal. But I would surely be worse off trying to digest the monster of information today without them. To some extent at least, they help to organise my mind and it's inputs, and preserve some sanity in me. After all, we are no Noams. But we at least want to be good graduate students.

When Winston Churchill and the English were fighting the Battle of Britain, the enemy was stronger and more in number. But Churchill said that the English would 'fight on the beaches, in the streets, and in the hills, in the fields and the landing grounds...we shall never surrender'. And they won. In the Battle of Written, again, the 'enemy' is stronger, overwhelming in number. So let us read, let us read articles, read papers, read news items and read footnotes. Read from sunrise to sunset, and perhaps even read on the beaches and the fields. Let us read till we pass out, and most importantly, read with discrimination. In fact, let us read so astutely, that we find plenty of time for other things in life. And we shall never surrender. And we will not win, but we will keep fighting, and learning.

6. And of course, many times when it gets under my skin, I simply take a break and play my keyboard.

Monday, August 21, 2006


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The greatness of Ustad Bismillah Khan lies in the fact that he elevated a little known and obscure instrument to national and international glory. He shares this greatness with others like Shivkumar Sharma. But Bismillah Khan's task was even more monumental because in my opinion, the shehnai is hardly an instrument that is versatile or whose scope is expansive, much less expansive than even the santoor. The shehnai had become ubiquitous as the harbinger of soulful notes for weddings. It had also become strongly associated with mournful moods. Nobody thought that it could become a mainstream instrument that would dominate musical gatherings. Bismillah Khan single-handedly transformed it into a respectful work of art, and did so with extraordinary devotion.

The road must have been tortuous. Almost nobody I know can find it very interesting to listen to the shehnai for more than an hour, not because its notes are not sweet, but because of its inherent limitations. Unlike vocal classical music, or the sitar, the shehnai simply doesn't seem to pack enough of a punch, and it does not seem that it can last for more than an hour before the wind is knocked out of it (no pun). The sitar seems to find itself in a sea of uncharted riches, and it seems to have the opportunity to dance around this landscape. The shehnai seems more constrained to tread a narrow strait, expecting itself to improvise on the same kind of tone and notes again and again. A phrase in Marathi seems apt for it- "Tyacha jeewach tewdha aahe" ("It has only so much life in it"). It might be spirited as background music, but making it the centre of attraction seems to be a harsh task. Bismillah Khan somehow changed that, and metamorphosed and marketed the thin long pipe as an independent source of music and joy, with limitless potential. Even today, I cannot listen to the shehnai the way I would listen for three hours to Hindustani classical vocal music. But without Bismillah Khan, I might not have acquired the patience to listen to it for an hour.

Like many other famous artists, Bismillah Khan suffered from penury even when he became famous. Like Mozart depended on royal aid, Khan depended on an appeal to the Prime Minister to provide comfortably for his extended family. He himself probably did not need that money, considering the ascetic existence he lived. By all accounts, he was the epitome of simplicity. He might have been content in one singular fact, that he played on the eve of our independence day, a fact that would mark him as unique. That the shehnai was chosen to honour those moments again points to its raw emotional appeal in our culture, and the auspicious mood it evokes. He himself literally worshipped the shehnai, and I have heard that he always made sure that the elevation at which the instrument was kept was always higher than the elevation at which he slept in his bed. Maybe the movies banalized the instrument by flooding our ears with it when a Bollywood hero or his mother died; ironically, Bismillah Khan's notes stirred our senses in Gunj Uthi Shehenai, and that was all that he had to ever do with cinema. But that never diverted our attention from the genuine pathos in its notes that Bismillah Khan could summon forth. The Raga Vrundawani Sarang especially has become forever connected with the shehenai.

Bismillah Khan also is spoken of as someone who signalled communal harmony. I would go one step further and say that he and his ilk have demonstrated that religion, it's reconciliations as well as conflicts, actually have no place in sublime human achievement. This has always been the great virtue of the arts. Among all human endeavors, along with science, it's one of two of our explorations that has stayed pure, and utouched by our failings. No matter that politics has used both art and science for nationalistic propaganda, discrimination, rage and war. But the 'what is' of art and science has always remained austere.

Should we be surprised if someone riots now that he is no more? For what reason?? That's a moot question.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


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I wouldn't have cared if Howard Hughes had been a thief (which he most certainly was not). For all his eccentricities, he gave the world an eminently important legacy- the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a bastion of top biomedical research, which has funded scientists in the US for many years now. In fact, the professor with whom I am collaborating is a Howard Hughes fellow.

In my continued run of watching good movies long after they have hit the theater, I finally watched The Aviator yesterday, biopic of millionare, obsessive aircraft maker and owner, womanizer, movie producer, philanthropist, and general eccentric Howard Hughes. Most of the movie is big; big sets, big landscapes, big aircraft, big money in big parties, and a big man at the middle of it all. And an eccentric man, obsessed with obssesive compulsive disorders that kept him grimacing at the sight of a mote of dust on a rich businesman's lapels, and that kept him from staying put in a bathroom until somebody else came in because he was too repulsed to touch the doorknob. But most likely, it was this obssesion that made Howard Hughes dream obsessively all his life, and make every effort to achieve those dreams. He wanted to build the biggest and fastest aircraft, he wanted to fly fastest and farthest in them, he wanted to become the richest man in the world, wanted to womanize with the most beautiful women of his time, and hated small mindedness in all its forms.

The talented Martin Scorsese has made a commendable effort to portray the glory years of Hughes, long before he succumbed to the demons inside him and turned into a compulsive drug addict, with long hair and fingernails, and a 6 foot 4 tall, 90 pound body. But even then, the demons were brewing inside him, they made him shut himself up for days at a time in a room, with a deafening backdrop of World War 1 epics playing behind him, collecting his urine in two dozen milk bottles for no particular reason. They made him suddenly find himself obssesively repeating a phrase and not being able to stop talking to himself. It is quite remarkable that in spite of these afflictions, he managed to mostly separate the public and private Hughes, appearing charming and dapper in public, fearing but still suppressing his inner paranoias from the public.

In my opinion, Leonardo De Caprio playing Hughes comes of age in this movie. He has put up a fine performance, and after Gangs of New York, seems to have blossomed again in Scorsese's hands. As Roger Ebert says, portraying any kind of madness is a notorious invitation to overacting, but like him, I agree that De Caprio treads the line extremely well, and realistically depicts Hughes's struggles to put on a sane face and suppress his inner voices. At least in his initial years, it was rarely that Hughes showed signs of his mental distress in public, but anyone who looked closely would have certainly noticed something wrong.

Hughes became a millionare, not by astutely investing his wealth, but by taking gigantic risks, by mortgaging his assets even when he had millions, simply to give vent to his big dreams of building the world's biggest and fastest aircraft. He was also not averse to taking each new prototype for test runs, no matter that every one of them crashed with him inside it, but not before he had broken a few records in each. The crashes, at least most of them, did not faze him in the least. Perhaps he sought solace and relaxation from the tension by engaging in affairs with most of the beautiful and famous women of his time, all actresses. Katherine Hepburn, the sassy, tomboyish screen queen may have been his most ardent and poigant catch, but she was only one among a string of beauties who essentially hung out with him for his fame and money. Hepburn was probably the only genuine romance he ever had, and she was no less eccentric than him, if anything. A scene in which Hughes' curt and abrupt behaviour is completely justified is one where he has lunch with Hepburn's parents and her ex-husband who for some strange reason, is allowed to cheerfully hang around the estate. Hepburn's family is irritating, opinionated, and judgemental to the point of of being obnoxious, and Hughes's exasperation is sympathetically understood (At one point, when he has just started to describe his latest grand and novel aircraft model, Hepburn's mother suddenly quips in with something about a bird-house that Katherine's ex-husband has built). I would run for my life with in-laws like that.

However, the portrait of Hughes the womanizer that I saw was interesting. I did not see a man who was indifferently using women for his own benefits and then casting them aside. Instead, Hughes appears to be a man who yearned for companionship without commitment, whose attitude towards his affairs was of an innocent indulgent, who seemed to think that having affairs was just the most natural and normal thing in the world. Even though he gambled on his own life and those of the women around him, most of them treated him as something of a dependent. They were not flattered by him, did not hesitate to show him that he did not own them, and seemed to look down upon him with some kind of detached amusement. Modern American feminist women who believe in being 'independent' would have liked them I think. Except Kate Hepburn, they were simply with him because he was rich and famous. Hughes on his part treated them with no great respect, but neither with cold manipulation. For him, they were important where and when they were, and even if in the end he appears like a profligate casanova, he was one who was much more innocent than many such philandering Don Juans. That was part of Hughes's character that struck me as quite unique. In any case, he never put them up and above his obssesion with flight.

Hughes also did not hesitate to speak out his mind. When he was investigated for being a war profiteer, he managed to convince the congressional committee investigating him that he did what he did only for making himself and his country aspire to the highest heights in aviation. In the investigation, with his frank admissions but unwavering conviction, he essentially ate the Senator investigating him alive. Hughes personality is interesting because in spite of amassing millions, he is shown to be an artless man who first and foremost is concerned with flight, and as a secondary interest, with making movies. He won't compromise on standards, he will always be frank, he will shun accepted norms, but all this mainly to live and achieve his dreams, and not to earn money. My PhD. advisor says that your primary aim should not be to make money, but if there is money that can be made on your endeavors, then you should be sure you are the one who is getting it. Hughes seems to have taken this belief to heart. If there can be anything such as an innocent millionare, Hughes could very well top the list. In one way, Hughes reminded me of Oscar Schindler, who was also an opportunist with no great scruples, but an honest opportunist at that.

As far as the technical aspects of the movie are concerned, they are very impressive. Especially the scene in which Hughes crashes a new prototype aircraft after mowing its wings through houses in the chic Beverly Hills is breathtaking and should keep the audience at the edge of their seats. Desperately clawing at the blazing hot glass of the cockpit, blood streaming down his face, Hughes managed to hoist himself out of the aircraft. The episode, which almost killed him, left him scarred for life. That did not dampen his enthusiasm for flying high, and after the second world war, he converted his dream of building the biggest aircraft in history, The Hercules, into reality. As he himself described it as a 'flying ship', it was a wonder that it took to the air and stayed there.

Aviation is one of the greatest collective dreams and achievements of humanity, and men like Hughes, for all their other flaws saw high and told others to see equally high. If there's one word that described Howard Hughes, it was 'obssesion'. But then, most trailblazers in history have been men and women who were obssesed with something. That Hughes's obssesion with other matters turned inward on himself is unfortunate. But as far as visionaries go, he was as big a visionary and dreamer as any. There's no doubt that he saw and lived big, and told others to do so.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


I have just discovered a 'law of conservation of defects'; when one defect materializes, another one suddenly corrects itself. This was demonstrated in an intriguing piece of detective work that me and our nifty electronics expert for the department did on Friday.

My behemoth 17 inch Mac Powerbook was giving me trouble, big trouble, the second time in one year. The problem was interesting; when I started it up, it ran fine for some time, but then after an hour or two, even a slightly hard tap on the keys would freeze the whole machinery. The only resort after that would be the Mac's equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Del a.k.a painfully slow suicide. I was having a hard time typing, and had to save long written pieces (like blog posts) amidst the fear that dearly beloved would suddenly depart for heaven.

As I was about to send it to the Apple Store, our resourceful electronics expert decided to first do some fiddling on his own. For some reason, he focused on the two memory modules and their two slots shown below.

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Tim The Intrepid soon discovered that one of the modules fit loosely into one slot. Voila! What was happening was that that memory module was the boot (sic) cause of the problem. Apparently, it fit snugly into the slot at the beginning. Then, as I typed and jolted the keyboard, it would suddenly loosen a little sometime. That's when G4 would go into septic shock.

But still, what was the root cause of this cause? A little observation on my part revealed a nanosized crack inside the slot. What was happening was that not only the shock but the increasing temperature after start up was apparently expanding that crack, thus adding some additional pow to the loosening.

So this was the little culprit that had made my life mentally unstable for the last couple of weeks. To verify our hypothesis, I am running my Mac with only half the memory in the other functional slot, and pounding away to glory over the weekend to see if the problem still persists. Until now, the machine's humming away with resplendent efficiency. I am quite positive now that that was the problem. Interestingly, I don't really notice the difference with only half the memory. Hail the compensatory abilities of the Mac. Have made a mental note to grab hold of iCurve, the 'invisible' laptop stand, as soon as I can.

As one error manifested itself, another one corrected itself. My beloved Nikon Coolpix 3200 fell down and hit itself in unknown crannies a few months ago. I was despondent, especially because I seemed to have misplaced both the warranty and the receipt. Today, just to take another wistful look, I unpacked that compact delight from its case. What had happened was that when it fell down, the shutter, like a drooping eyelid, refused to close. I figured some complicated mechanism inside had dissociated itself from the shutter. Today, after having taken a look at the whole debacle several times, I noticed that the ring on the outermost rim of the lens looked as if it was pried open just a little. That's the thin white rim indicated by the red arrow below.

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Just for the heck of it, I tapped it and it seemed to fit back where it was. Idly then, I tried manually closing the shutter yet again, and dear mother of Darwin, it stayed there! When I again restarted and shut down the camera, everything slid together back in place, right as rain. That's the conservation of defects. Or maybe just conservation of luck.

To celebrate the resurrection of Coolpix, I took it to a Korean wedding in an Indian Baptist Church, a curious oddity which I encountered for the first time in my life. It even seems to be run by a Maharashtrian. Or it may just be my perception brought on by the intoxicating Kimchi and all.

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Incidentally, one of the pieces in the wedding, sung in Korean, was the famous chorus from Beethoven's 9th. If Korean Christians sing an originally German piece in Korean, do Indian Christians sing it in Hindi or Marathi or some other Indian language in their weddings?? Now drown me in Kimchi, o Messiah!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Myth: Evolution is a theory
Fact: There is no myth further from the truth. First of all, evolution is a fact. Natural selection is the theory advanced to rationalize it, and natural selection is as good a 'theory' as you can have. If evolution is a theory, then it is as good as the 'theory' that the earth revolves round the sun.

Myth: Evolution is dubious because it cannot be demonstrated in real time.
Fact: For a counterexample, we just have to look at HIV, one of the more unfortunate gems of evolutionary processes. Evolution has been demonstrated in scientific journals of every kind millions of times, both on a micro scale quite beautifully in biochemical systems, and on a macro scale (See 'The Beak of the Finch'). Also, take a look at a recent more endearing example; mice who shudder when blasted with air.

Myth: Global warming is a theory
Fact: Global warming is a fact. At no time in the last 650,000 years has temperature risen in an overall manner as it has in the last century. CO2 levels have also been the highest. No doubt about that. As for the correlation, it is very very good, if not foolproof. And when it comes to fools who don't believe global warming is real, it cannot be foolproof enough.

Myth: Global warming is causing evolution
Fact: I made that up, although global warming has been shown to cause proliferation as well as extinction of species. Evolution in a local sense may be one effect. And this could very well be a myth in someone's mind. After all, as John Casti says, one function of myths is to provide a feeling of awe about the ultimate mysteries of the universe. And what better way to reinforce this feeling than through ignorance, no?

Myth: Evolution is causing global warming
Fact: True! If we had not evolved and not become industrialised, we would not have caused this kind of global warming.


OK, now I know that Bengali people, just like all of us, are chemical entities. But is it really necessary to put them in the spotlight and dissect their composition thus? And that too in the top chemical journal in the world? Shame on you!

Peter Kollman who died prematurely of cancer in 2001, was one of the world's top theoretical and computational chemists who made many contributions to biochemistry and drug design. In my opinion, he was a sure shot future Nobel prize winner.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I am always a little chagrined when people consider China and India as models of future economic superpowers in the same breath. From what I know, differences between these two countries are still massive when it comes to many fundamental matters. Especially when it comes to science, I don't think India is on the same page as China. Basic infrastructure in China is superior to us, and it's with the basic infrastructure that students are going to get trained at an early level. Bureaucracy and red-tape still riddle many levels of operations in our scientific institutions, which can lead even a promising young scientist to throw in the towel. More importantly, reservation and regionalism, formally and informally instituted, threaten to always pull us back by a hundred years, no matter what the sphere of progress that we are talking about.

Peer review is lax or largely absent in India. Academic promotion is largely on the basis of seniority and not on the basis of achievements. A young scientist's career in an Indian academic institution could well be chock full of bureaucratic complications, informal regional favouritism, and plain jealousy. These problems turn into real problems then, even when there is no lack of funding. Science in China has been shown to be largely relatively unfettered by such red-tape. Maybe it's because of the 'whip culture'. But the results speak for themselves.

We have the proverbial potential. But what about its translation into solid achievement? We had the potential and certainly the manpower. Yet we missed the Human Genome Project bus. How many more such endeavors are we going to find ourselves sliding out of, not because we lack advanced instrumentation or foreign educated scientists, but because we don't have a base to stand on? How many treks to Mount Everest will we miss not because we lack the stamina or strength or will power, but because we don't know how to tie our shoelaces to begin with? Of what use is the most lavishly constructed roof, if the foundation does not exist? In an earlier post, I talked about aspiring to sprint before we even stand. China seems to be building a much better base to stand upon. And they also have the infrastructure for sprinting.

Our basic economic problems are already well-documented. Unfortunately I cannot find the article by a BBC journalist who bemoaned this comparison between China and India, after seeing the stark contrast in basic living conditions and infrastructure when he travelled to India from China. And this is really basic; food, shelter and clothing. No matter how resplendent the branches and fruits may be, their growth and prosperity are limited by the roots that hold them down. They cannot soar even when they want to.

Of course, we can complain about human rights and rigid controls in China. But I am talking about the end results. Human rights problems are real problems without a doubt, but when Chinese laureates are sitting at the Nobel prize ceremony a few years from now, they would have been lauded for their discoveries, not for the fact that they made those discoveries under threat of torture. And it does not have to be that bad in the first place.

So no, when it comes to matters of scientific and for that matter, economic progress (because many of these factors apply to economic advance too), I cringe when people take China and India's name in the same breath. So, echoing the Khan and leaving my grudges about him aside for once, let me say that I think that our country is not as progressive as China when it comes to technological and economic matters. Yes, it certainly has the potential, but right now, it's not. Simple. And because it has the potential does not mean it will automatically live up to that potential.

This one should really have your ear (pun intended). Dylan Stiles casually combs his ear one boring evening at his lab, analyses whatever has come out, and after some astute chemical analysis, concludes that the entire cholesterol synthesis pathway in our body is being played out in his auditory apparatus. Behold the wonder that is earwax. Yucky but eminently interesting and readable. Stiles surely deserves an Ig Nobel prize.

Incidentally, the world's best selling drug, Lipitor, targets and blocks an enzyme called HMG-coenzyme A reductase in the cholesterol synthesis pathway in our body. I hereby lay claim to a patent on the drug as an earwax reducer for fashion and beauty conscious men and women.

Recall that most cholesterol in our body is synthesized and much less comes from our diet. Swab your ears more frequently now, get rid of excess cholesterol. Or send it to Stiles as a trophy for his waxbum (wax album)

Monday, August 07, 2006

VANITY: His greatest sin

Let's face it. Scientists and graduate students like to gossip as much as middle aged women or wealthy businessmen at English country clubs. More often than not, I have found myself discussing who did something as much as what was done. My advisor is not averse to telling me stories about big shots bumbling, which I thoroughly enjoy. Of course there's also praise involved, but who doesn't like to take potshots at sacred cows. In a tribute to that simplest failing of humankind, jealousy, we also find ourselves jumping at a chance to criticise especially a big name, a prolific publisher, or that charismatic chemist who we think is getting more rock star like adulation than we think he deserves, or that we think we deserve. Without all the hard work of course. At some level, this gossip is well-founded and even wholesome, because through jealousy, it also signifies a deeply felt respect for the achievements of other scientists at pinnacles.

Especially when the scandal is question appears in the pages of a well-respected journal, whose usual fare consists of only honest research, we pounce on the opportunity. The La Clair episode for example, got more than 200 comments on the readable blog of Stanford graduate student Dylan Stiles. I was convulsing so much at the comments, now I know what brought on the bodyache cited at the beginning of the next paragraph. I am also one who is guilty of raking up leaves and occasional mud on those pages, although I also refrained judiciously from making obnoxious personal remarks (having enjoyed the ones others have made). That is one of the unfortunate trappings of the cybergrapevine. Slander can spread on it faster than light, and a name can be dragged in the mud countless number of times faster than one can say 'oops'. Now won't it be fun if all of us had to swallow those millions of words if the scandal turned out to be not a scandal after all. On the other hand, in this particular case, it seems that the hulabaloo is justified. I am still not loathe to keeping my mind open, but I don't want to keep it so open that all the knowledge in it, a smidgeon that has been hard won in the first place and widely scattered, does not rush out.

In other news, I am recovering from a strain of flu like microorganism that has left my body yearning for a bone replacement. Maybe La Clair's Bionic Bros. can help me (there we go again..). Also, I came close to being certified a nerdy nutcase when I dashed into the chem library 2 mins before it closed, grabbed a book, and told the librarian, "I was just looking for something interesting to read over the weekend". As she looked at me with that kind of look in her eye and said that 'she was worried about me', I quickly corrected her and told her that the book I had picked was a 'popular science' book (and I use this important phrase at a time when it has become much maligned, like the word 'knowledgeble'). The book is very nice, Philip Ball's 'Designing the Molecular World'. Now I am just a nerd, at least not a nutcase, or so at least I would think.