Friday, October 29, 2010

How about a graphite ring for getting engaged?

Donald Sadoway is a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT. Over the last few years he has emerged as one of the most popular lecturers on campus. Even Bill Gates has referred to him as a fantastic chemistry teacher. His course titled "Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry" is so much in demand that in 2007 it had about 600 students and the school had to stream the lecture into another room. Fortunately all his lectures including the ones for 2010 are online. Sadoway is a great speaker and seems to have thought very carefully about what he wants to say in class. Definitely worth watching.

Check out his description of the structural differences between diamond and graphite and how they affect the radically different properties of the substances. It's one of the clearest explanations of the difference I have heard.

At the end, Sadoway mentions that since graphite is the most stable form of carbon at room temperature, wouldn’t it make sense to present a ring made of graphite instead of diamond to your love interest as a symbol of everlasting love? I think that makes sense although my fiancée will probably disagree.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

A limitless life

Cross posted at Critical Twenties

The Indian chemist Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao (known as C N R Rao) is one of the foremost solid-state and materials chemists in the world. His output- more than a thousand papers and forty books- is phenomenal by most scientific standards. He has been one of the founding fathers of the field in the last fifty years. There are very few living chemists in any field who have worked in such diverse areas. Rao’s work has been recognized by several honors, including election to the Indian science academies, the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. Very few scientists have influenced Indian science in the last half century to the extent that he has. In his native city of Bangalore he is virtually worshipped by some; I have seen a traffic intersection named after him.

Rao has now written an biography in which he catalogs his life and times in chemistry. It’s worth reading, especially if you want to get a glimpse of science in a developing country and the kind of efforts it takes to do research in such a place.

Rao grew up in post-independence India where the fledgling republic was striving to get its feet off the ground. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was probably the most scientifically literate and ambitious of all the country’s leaders and placed a premium on scientific and technological development. It was under his leadership that the Indian Institutes of Technology and many of the leading national laboratories were established. Rao grew up in the 1940s and did his undergraduate work at the Banaras Hindu University in the holy city of Banaras, situated along the banks of the Ganges River. As a 19-year old undergraduate he published his first paper in Science on electrical discharges. After graduation he applied to Linus Pauling for his PhD. However, Pauling was then vigorously engaged in deciphering the structure of proteins and was not involved with the kind of experimental physical chemistry that Rao was interested in. He referred Rao instead to John Livingston at Purdue University, who was a leader in electron diffraction.

After finishing his PhD at Purdue, Rao went to Berkeley for a postdoc where he was engrossed by the likes of Glenn Seaborg, Melvin Calvin and others who had made Berkeley a Mecca for chemistry and physics. His scientific output was already outstanding- about 30 papers in leading journals- and it would have been easy for him to get a top faculty position in the US. However, Rao wanted to return to India and got a faculty appointment at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). He also got married to a woman (Indu) who has been a great source of strength and wisdom for him since then. Apart from a productive stint at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Rao has spent his entire career at IISc and then at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advances Scientific Research (JNCASR) which he founded.

The next part of the book is the part that’s most interesting. By that point (late 50s), chemistry had been revolutionized by two great developments. One was the invention of key instrumental techniques like NMR spectroscopy and x-ray diffraction. The other development was the formulation of a theoretical framework for chemistry through quantum mechanics, pioneered by Pauling, Slater, Mulliken etc. These developments were virtually unknown in India and were almost non-existent in the university curriculum. Along with a small band of other chemists, Rao was instrumental in establishing these modern chemical concepts in India. He did this, firstly by being one of the first to teach courses in quantum chemistry, spectroscopy etc. and secondly by founding a vigorous program of modern chemical research. He was certainly one of the few pioneers of modern chemistry in post-independence India; one is reminded of the American school of modern physics which Robert Oppenheimer founded at Berkeley in the 30s. Rao’s perseverance in overcoming fundamental odds like the lack of equipment and the Indian bureaucracy is noteworthy. Rao also made solid-state chemistry respectable when work in that discipline was far from fashionable. His descriptions of the threadbare capabilities of Indian science and the efforts necessary to overcome these are intriguing and inspiring. It definitely took a lot of courage and was an enormous gamble for Rao to decide to establish his career in India during that time, especially when his career would certainly have flourished anywhere in Europe or the US. But it ultimately paid off and allowed Rao to make contributions that were far greater in terms of social and national impact compared to the contributions he would have been able to make elsewhere.

So how does one do high-quality research in a resources and cash-strapped developing country? Rao’s approach is worth noting. He knew that the accuracy of measurements he could do with the relatively primitive equipment in India could never compete with sophisticated measurements in Europe or the US. So instead of aiming for accuracy, Rao aimed at interesting problems. He would pick a novel problem or system where even crude measurements would reveal something new. Others may then perform more accurate measurements on the system, but his work would stand as the pioneering work in the area. This approach is worth emulating and should be especially emphasized by young scientists starting out in their careers: be problem-oriented rather than technique-oriented. Another key lesson from Rao's life is to not work in crowded fields; Rao would often contribute the initial important observations in the field and then move on while it was taken over by other scientists. This also keeps one from getting bored. Embodying this philosophy allowed Rao to work in a vast number of areas. He started with spectroscopic investigations of liquids, moved to inorganic materials and further worked extensively on organic materials. Among other things, he has made significant contributions to unraveling the structures and properties of transition metal oxides, ceramic superconductors and materials displaying giant magneto-resistance. All these had special physical and chemical properties which were directly a result of their unique structures. Rao co-authored an internationally recognized book- “New Directions in Solid-State and Structural Chemistry”- which encapsulates the entire field.

However, sometimes not having the right technique can prove significantly debilitating. In the 80s, the world of science was shaken by the discovery of ‘high-temperature’ superconductivity in a ceramic material. In fact Rao had synthesized the exact same material - an oxide of copper, lanthanum and barium - more than fifteen years before. However, the compound became superconducting at 30 degrees Kelvin and could be studied only in liquid helium. Unfortunately Rao was unable to do measurements at this temperature because the only relevant material available in his laboratory was liquid nitrogen, which boils at 77 K. If liquid helium had been available, Rao might well have been the first person to observe superconductivity in this material. In 1987, two scientists at IBM who discovered the phenomenon were awarded the Nobel Prize.

The later parts of the book deal with Rao’s experiences as a top government advisor and his relationships with several leading scientists including Nobel laureates like Nevill Mott and Philip Anderson. He also laments the current state of science education in India where most bright students prefer to study financially lucrative disciplines like information technology, business and medicine. The Indian middle class is still stuck in a peculiar frame of mind in which intelligence and achievement is necessarily measured by the amount of money you make. Understandably, many Indian middle class parents who themselves grew up in relative poverty want their children to be financially successful. But as Rao says, this attitude is adversely affecting the scientific future of the country and is siphoning off talent from science and technology research. For now, about the only solution to this problem is the infusion of funds in science education and research with a view to making these fields financially sustainable. Some steps in this direction have been taken with the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), but much more needs to be done. Unfortunately, Rao has relatively few thoughts on practical policies which could bring about such a change. This is probably the most disappointing part of the book since Rao, with his enormous experience in Indian science and government, enjoys a unique vantage point and would have been the idea guide to offer solutions and policy recommendations. But apart from stressing the importance of science education and science, he has few deep thoughts on the problem.

The book ends with some interesting appendices and reflections. One is a “Letter to a Young Chemist” in which Rao succinctly catalogs the excitement of solid-state and materials chemistry. Another essay on science and spirituality is again disappointing; while Rao clearly sees no conflict between the two, the essay is only two pages long and superficial. The last essay titled “Science as a Way of Life” is a masterful exposition on the kind of attitude one needs to be a scientist, and the role of science in our society. Here Rao teaches by example. As attested by his colleagues and friends, he has been completely dedicated to science throughout his life and demands the same kind of unflinching commitment from his students and co-workers. He still spends almost every free minute in the lab and intends to follow the example of some of his scientific heroes in working till the last day of his life. While this intensity has often made him a demanding teacher and taskmaster, no one can accuse him of not walking the talk. Rao talks about the international community of scientists and how it has helped him. He also talks about prejudices still standing in the way of international cooperation, including the occasional racism he encountered at Purdue in the 50s, which can be rapidly dissolved by the bonds of scientific kinship.

The great thing about science is that like music and art it is truly without boundaries and constitutes an international community. As Rao himself has demonstrated, excellence in science does not ask for one’s nationality, religion, gender, sexual inclination or political views. All it asks for are an open mind, healthy skepticism, honest dedication and respect for knowledge and inquiry. As Rao’s life exemplifies, cultivating these qualities can lead to a life that is extraordinarily rewarding and enriching.

Link: An extended video interview of Rao on the Vega Science Trust website conducted by his friend, chemist Anthony Cheetham of UCSB and Cambridge. The interview is worth watching and covers Rao's life, science, public service and home life.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Ethics and Indian Science

I have started contributing to the blog Critical Twenties which has been launched by an excellent cross-section of intellectually curious Indians scattered across the globe. You can read the description here. The blog is the initiative of Arghya Sengupta, a law student at Oxford University. The following is my first post at the blog and I will be linking here whenever I post.

The story is well-known by now. A graduate student named Heather Ames was doing cancer research at the University of Michigan. At one point she started noticing her experiments going horribly wrong. This started happening so often that the frustrated researcher almost began to question her own sanity. When she complained to her advisor her advisor would not believe it initially. At one point even her advisor suspected, based mostly on second-hand reports, that the young woman was sabotaging her own experiments to gain sympathy. One can only imagine her plight. Finally, by judicious recording of her experiments, she was able to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that someone was tampering with them. When she and her advisor reported the matter to the campus police, the police first gave the poor woman herself a lie-detector test. Only after they were convinced of her innocence did they launch a serious investigation. The winning strategy for catching the culprit turned out to be simple. A camera surreptitiously installed in the lab proved that the young researcher’s colleague, an Indian postdoc named Vipul Bhrigu, was cruelly sabotaging her experiments...

Read the rest of the post on Critical Twenties

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"The most ludicrous system ever devised"

That's Nobel laureate Harry Kroto on the peer-review system. Since he won his Nobel for fullerenes, Kroto has become a tireless promoter of science education and communication. This week's issue of Nature has a series of brief interviews with several Nobel laureates. One of the questions asked was about the peer-review system and whether it is an optimal one. Most laureates gave an analogy and paraphrased Churchill's quip about democracy: it’s a system full of flaws, yet better than the other alternatives. But Kroto went one step further:
Many people consider the peer-review system broken. Do you share their view, and do you have a solution?

The peer-review system is the most ludicrous system ever devised. It is useless and does not make sense in dealing with science funding when history abounds with a plethora of examples that indicate that the most important breakthroughs are impossible to foresee.

The science budget should be split into three (not necessarily equal) parts and downloaded to departments. The local institutions, and not government departments, should disburse funding as they are close to the coalface and can decide what needs support and what is in the long-term interest of the department. There should be no research proposals on which to waste time.

One part should go to young people chosen by their universities as the researchers on which their institution's future will depend — they have done the work, why waste time doing it again when people have no time and are too far away from the coalface and in general do not have the relevant expertise?

The second part should go to a group whose most recent report was excellent. This is the racehorse solution — if a scientist has just done some great work, let her or him run again.
Although I would have probably eschewed such strong words and do sympathize with the other laureates' perspective, my heart is with Sir Kroto. Revolutionary science has often been rejected by the peer-review system; it's worth noting that Enrico Fermi's paper on beta decay was rejected by Nature.

I myself have believed in having a separate section in leading science journals devoted to "improbable" science, speculative and brain-tickling ideas flung out for contemplation by the rest of the community. The section should make it clear that such ideas have not been validated, but then that's true of any scientific idea when it's being conceived. I seriously believe that such sections would provide a lot of food for thought for researchers who are willing to go out on a limb. Maybe the published, incomplete ideas will meet their own ideas to be synthesized into a more coherent whole.

Now of course that does not mean that any crackpot idea deserves to be published. There certainly needs to be a minimum standard for acceptance. For this there could be a second kind of peer-review, where reviewers are more forgiving and more creative in judging the merit of the proposed concept. These reviewers could judge the idea not on the basis of its validation but on the basis of its novelty, novelty that’s nonetheless grounded in sound basic principles of science (thus homeopathy would be instantly excluded). Such a two-tier system would then provide an opportunity for the publication of both “normal” science as well as potentially revolutionary science. An example that comes to my mind is Luca Turin’s novel idea about olfactory molecules being detected by vibration rather than shape. The idea certainly seemed grounded in basic physics and chemistry. Its publication would have pushed at least a couple of researchers to validate or disprove it. As it turns out it was rejected by a leading journal after a long wait.

As Freeman Dyson says, the most important scientists are often "rebels" who speak out against the conventional wisdom. Their far-fetched sounding pronouncements of today have often been transformed into the important discoveries of tomorrow. The least that science journals can do is to give their ideas a worldwide platform.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

In praise of cheap science

The era of ‘big science’ in the United States began in the 1930s. Nobody exemplified this spirit more than Ernest Lawrence at the University of California, Berkeley whose cyclotrons smashed subatomic particles together to reveal nature’s deepest secrets. Lawrence was one of the first true scientist-entrepreneurs. He paid his way through college selling all kinds of things as a door-to-door salesman. He brought the same persuasive power a decade later to sell his ideas about particle accelerators to wealthy businessmen and philanthropists. Sparks flying off his big machines, his ‘boys’ frantically running around to fix miscellaneous leaks and shorts, Lawrence would proudly display his Nobel Prize winning invention to millionaires as if it were his own child. The philanthropists’ funding paid off in at least one practical respect; it was Lawrence’s modified cyclotrons that produced the uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb.

After the war big science was propelled to even greater heights. With ever bigger particle accelerators needed to explore ever smaller particles, science became an expensive ‘hobby’. The decades through the 70s were dominated by high-energy physics that needed billion-dollar accelerators to verify its predictions. Fermilab, Brookhaven and of course, CERN, all became household names. Researchers competed for the golden apples that would sustain these behemoths. But one of the rather unfortunate fallouts of these developments was that good science started to be defined by the amount of money it needed. Gone were the days when a Davy or a Cavendish could make profound discoveries using tabletop apparatus. The era of molecular biology and the billion dollar Human Genome Project further cemented this faith in the fruits of expensive research.

We are now seeing the culmination of this era of big physics and biology. In recent years, university professors’ worth has exceedingly been measured by the amount of funding that they get. Science, long a relentless search to uncover the mysteries of life and the universe, has been transformed into a relentless search to find the perfect problem most likely to bag the biggest grant. Rather than focusing on the ideas themselves, the current system encourages researchers on proving their ‘worth’. The only true worth of a scientist is his quest and hunger for knowledge and his passion in transferring that knowledge to the next generation. All other metrics of worth are greatly exaggerated.

The accomplished chemist Alan Bard nails this problem in an editorial that castigates the current system for sacrificing the actual quality of research at the altar of the ability to bring in research funds. The editorial succinctly points out that in the race to secure these funds, scientists are often tempted to hype their research proposals so that the end product is more smoke and less fire. And of course, the biggest casualty is the education of further generations of scientists, those who are going to bring about the very technological and scientific advances that make our world tick. The result of all this? Young people are dissuaded from going into academic science; if their worth is going to be mainly judged in dollars (and that too only after they turn 40), they might as well work for the private sector.

Now of course nobody is arguing against scientists being able to file patents or apply for large grants. Money flowing in from these endpoints can sustain further research which today on the whole is more expensive. But as Bard’s article makes it clear, these activities are often becoming the primary and not the secondary focus of universities. That goes against the spirit of research and it undermines the very meaning of intellectual scholarship.

But most importantly, and Bard does not explicitly mention this, I think that the current environment makes it appear to young scientists just entering the game that they need to necessarily do expensive science in order to be successful. I think part of this belief does come from the era of big accelerator physics and high profile molecular biology. But this belief is flawed and it has been demolished by physicists themselves; this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to scientists who produced graphene by peeling off layers of it from graphite using good old scotch tape. How many millions of dollars did it take to do this experiment?

Sure, low hanging scientific fruits accessible through simple experiments have largely been picked, but such a perspective is also in the eye of the beholder. As the graphene scientists proved, there are still fledgling fields like materials science where simple and ingenious experiments can contribute to profound discoveries. Another field where such experiments can provide handsome dividends is the other fledgling field of neuroscience. Cheap research that provides important insights in this area is exemplified by the neurologist V S Ramachandran, who has performed the simplest and most ingenious experiments on patients using mirrors and other elementary equipment to unearth key insights into the functioning of the brain. These scientists have shown that if you find the right field, you can find the right simple experiment.

Ultimately, few can doubt that cheap experiments are also more elegant, and one derives much more satisfaction from simply mixing two chemicals together to generate complex self-assembled structures than using the latest accelerator to analyze gigabytes of computer data, although the latter may also lead to exciting discoveries. The beauty of science still lies in its simplicity.

But as Bard’s article suggests, are university administrations going to come around to this point of view? Are they going to recruit a young researcher describing an ingenious tabletop experiment worth five thousand dollars or are they going to go for one who is going to pitch for a hundred thousand dollars worth of fancy equipment? Sadly, the current answer seems to be that they would rather prefer the latter.

This has got to change, not only because simple experiments still hold the potential to provide unprecedented insights in the right fields, but also because the undue association of science with money misleads young researchers into thinking that more expensive is better. It threatens to undermine everything that science has stood for since The Enlightenment. The function of academic scientists is to do high-quality research and mentor the next generation of scientist-citizens. Raising money comes second. A scientist who spends most of his time securing funds is no different from a corporate lackey soliciting capital.

Science, which has nurtured and sustained our intellectual growth and contributed to our well-being for four hundred years, is like an eagle held aloft by the wind of creativity and skepticism. How can this magnificent bird soar if the wind fueling its flight and holding it high starts getting charged by the cubic centimeter?


Friday, October 08, 2010

The Velvet Undergrounds of science

Over at the physics blog "Uncertain Principles", Chad Orzel has a nice meme. He talks about the band called 'The Velvet Undergound' which itself was not very popular but which influenced many other bands. Orzel then asks which scientists were the Velvet Undergrounds of their respective disciplines. These would be individuals whose great achievements were not recognized during their lifetimes. He names Sadi Carnot.

I think there are two kinds of Velvet Undergrounds in science, ones whose achievements were not even recognized by their peers until after they died, and others whose achievements were recognized by their peers when they were alive but which did not make their names publicly known. Here's a few I thought of. Do you know more?

In the first category:

Josiah Willard Gibbs for thermodynamics: He published his founding contributions in an obscure Connecticut journal.

Gregor Mendel for genetics: His contribution was famously and independently uncovered only after 30 years.

Ludwig Boltzmann (partially) for physics: His belief in the existence of atoms was ruthlessly demolished by some including Ernst Mach.

George Price for evolutionary biology: His contributions to altruism were invaluable, but he astonishingly died as a penniless and homeless person on the streets of London

Henrietta Swan Leavitt for astronomy: Her groundbreaking and backbreaking work in exploring the Cepheid variables was pivotal to Edwin Hubble's foundational research on the expanding universe.

Hugh Everett for physics: His multiple universe theory is now increasingly embraced as a way to get around wavefunction collapse and problems with the Copenhagen Interpretation

In the second category:

Bruno Zimm and Jack Dunitz for crystallography: Zimm developed Zimm-Bragg diffraction theory. Dunitz inspired a generation of crystallographers (Dunitz is still alive actually)

Norman Heatley for penicillin: He was the brilliant technician behind the commercial production of the miracle drug

Stanislaw Ulam for math: He was the dominant contributor to Monte-Carlo methods

Arnold Sommerfeld for physics: He had a tremendous educational impact on most of the leading quantum physicists of the early twentieth century

Carl Woese for microbiology: He identified a whole new tree of life, the Archaea

Robert Wilson for physics: He designed particle accelerators the way Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. A fine amateur architect himself, he was the driving force behind the aesthetically pleasing Fermilab

Stanley Miller: The father of modern origins-of-life research

S F Boys for chemistry: He invented the technique of using Gaussian orbitals to approximate Slater-type orbitals, a development that is at the root of all of ab initio quantum chemistry

Michael Dewar for chemistry: A brilliant man with a huge ego, he vastly influenced many branches of theoretical chemistry

Sidney Coleman for physics: He tremendously influenced a generation of theoretical physicists with his penetrating insight and criticism

Gilbert Newton Lewis for chemistry: The father of the shared-electron chemical bond

Frank Westheimer for chemistry: A founding father of bioorganic chemistry

Peter Mitchell: Mitchell won a Nobel Prize, but his extremely important contribution of chemiosmotic theory is virtually unknown to the public

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