To change or not to change, and how much to adapt ?

September 21, 2017

Increasingly we see students into higher learning to originate from villages and small towns. In fact, city boys and girls  seem to have done a vanishing act as far their presence in PhD or pursuit of higher studies.

These boys and girls often find it hard to adopt to a different culture. Part of the reason lies in the depth of their character — an already formed deep character with value system developed shall find it hard to charge or adapt. This is natural. But, unfortunately, change they must. But by how much ?

I give you an example. We often find many of these students have not learned/practiced well how to speak, not only in public but also in group meetings or in one-to-one science discussions.  There is a lack of basic communication skill — the polite but assertive way one often needs to explain things in science discourse. English is always a problem but also fear,  shyness and meek character come in the way. One needs to overcome all these and it is not easy — not easy at all. The students should not under-estimate the difficulty but at the same time never stop trying and improving.

Many of these students are pretty good communicator in their own language and in their own  social atmosphere, but somehow that skill disappears in science discussions and talks.

Note that most of us stop improving beyond a point — may be we run out of motivation and drive. As I mentioned earlier, it is the drive that plays a critical role.

I often think : what goes on in the mind of these students ? How to peep into their thinking ? In order to help them improve their life skills we need to gauge their thinking.

Let us first take the issue of fear and meekness. I often ask my “meek”students whether they were severely punished in their childhood. In an Indian society, in our schools, colleges and kinder-garden, it is almost impossible to grow up with your dignity and self-esteemed intact.

Our schools, often filled with insensitive and cruel teachers, combined our parents, often a dominating father who would love to thrash at slightest indiscipline or even at his whims, often give rise to children who have a deep fear psychosis ingrained in them. It lies so deep that it is difficult to trace, let even uproot.

So, what to do ?

First thing we need to tell the students is to be aware of the difficulties. They must find for themselves and by themselves, the origin of their difficulties. They need to reach out for help, ask other students and also teachers to find out the draw-backs and limitations of expressions, manner of speech — to fast or too slow — bad habits (“you know”, “I mean” etc.). They must listen, accept limitations and strive to change. As I said, change you must !

On two occasions that I attended lectures by Indian Scientists looking for jobs at American Universities (late 1970s and early 1980s) — the performance was pathetic. In one case I counted that the Indian speaker mentioned “you know” 137 times, and “I mean” 142 times. I started counting after 5-10 minutes — so he might have driven a double century.

It was so pathetic that I was crestfallen, and asked my friends and colleagues about my own ability and quality to deliver talks.

Anyway — the main issue is how to improve ? If it is English — it is simpler although not necessarily easy. But a determined effort can bear fruits. I have seen many students to become good communicator from a fumbling speaker to emerge after practice and persistence.

This is the happy situation. And it is fairly common.

But for a minority, things are not that simple. They do not seem to be able to get out of the shadow of the past.

But they smut accept that they need to change and that they need to adopt .

Then the need to develop the skill to communicate. This is hard. I myself has ceased to be a good communicator as I do not often pay attention. But many speakers are wonderful communicators. Take the case of Richard Zare from Stanford. John Marie Lehn from France (?). Y.T. Lee from Taiwan. I have heard these scientists several times. They are so wonderful ! I feel jealous !

But there is only one way to become that good.  Practice, practice and practice. And copy ! Yes — you need to copy these great speakers. So you must find a way to listen to them — even in You Tube or such place.

There is one more quality that you need to develop to be a good communicator. You need to be able to connect to people. To have empathy. This is hard.

But again students must try. As there is no alternative to success !

Good luck !

Biman Bagchi,

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

profbiman@gmail.com

 

 

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The trade-off between drive and ambition

September 10, 2017

We often find students with a lot of ambition but insufficient drive. The opposite, more desirable, is less common.

Why do I suddenly decide to write a Blog on this ?  It is because I see a disturbing but developing trend among students of late — students are often quite ambitious — often aggressively so but the drive is lacking.

In certain sense, the difference is like that between IQ and EQ — but you need both to succeed.

To succeed in scientific research (and in life in general) we need three  “P”s— Passion, Practice and Patience. This is a common and oft uttered statement — I heard it many times..  Nothing new or surprising there.

Passion is obtained from parents, teachers and/or from society.  This is required but often a over-rated quality. Of course we need passion to achieve anything but it is not hard to develop or get.

Practice essentially means hard work. This is harder. But still not hard to inculcate.

The last P — the patience — is the most difficult one. The reason that sets it aside from practice or even persistence is that patience is the quality you need when you face repeated failures, or whenever going gets tough.This is personal quality which can be developed but often born with.

People with a lot of drive tend to have the last “P” in abundance.

Now what about ambition ? Where does it stand and why do I add a slightly negative connotation to it ?

Whenever I think of ambition I remember  Mark Antonio’s speech after Julius Caesar was killed by Brutus, Cassius and Co. : ” The noble Brutus hath said, Caesar was ambitious. If  it were so,  it was a grievous fault. And grievously hath Caesar answered it”.

Earlier I always was a bit uncertain about these lines of Mark Antonio’s speech. Why did  he say that ambition was a grievous fault ?

Of late I have begun to understand it (better late than never !). Frankly put, ambitious people are often a pain in the wrong place. They cause great damage to others and to society at large. Because ambition in certain sense is like a fire — it consumes a person and then proceeds to affect others. Ambition often knows no bound.

Do not get me wrong — we do need certain degree of ambition but here I am want to compare ambition with drive — the two are different but often confused with each other.

Closer to home, we have the similar views was articulated long long time ago in the eternal book of wisdom — our own Bhagavad Gita.

“Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani”

Meaning

“You have the right to work but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive,  not be attachment to inaction. ”

 

The connection of this Blog on drive and ambition  to Bhagavad Gita was pointed out by a colleague of mine, and I was slightly taken aback because I was surprised that I missed this. This also provided the missing connection — it is your drive that makes you work — perhaps the main purpose of our life (not the mobile phones as the young generation would like to believe !).

Drive is a wonderful quality to possess, particularly when the drive is good for others. A person with a lot of positive drive is an assert for the society as he/she gets a lot done.

It is a delight for a teacher to find a student with a lot of drive. Such a student often takes lot of responsibilities and can be relied up on. Such student reaches out to help others.

It is okay to have a little less ambition if you can replace it with abundance of drive.

Sometimes we find that ambition gives rise to drive. This is a positive effect. But more often teachers and friends need to play a role in this conversion.

The modern society is creating more and more students who are quite ambitious. They come from families where ambition is glorified. Some amount of ambition is good for you.  But what we need in students and people is lots of  inner drive.

I think somehow a positive drive is connected with honesty and integrity while ambition follows a different path, kind of sits outside all these noble virtues.

In a trade-off between drive and ambition, I shall recommend drive over ambition. It is the inner drive that makes you work hard.

But how to develop drive ? There are people around us with lots of drive. They often are the leaders.

I would recommend parents and teachers to give the children the drive to excel, the drive to change and the drive to succeed– but without specific goals and ambition. Let children figure out their own path. So long they develop the drive, the necessary ambition will follow.

Biman Bagchi

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

 

Why the allopathic doctors do not ask questions and the homeopathy doctors do not ask for tests ?

August 8, 2017

When ever I think of the comparison between different branches of medicine, I am reminded of a nice story from my teen-age. My mother was suffering for long from ‘cold and cough’ that was not going away and was affecting our whole family. My father (who was a freedom fighter but had an European mind — something of a contradiction that I realized later) reluctantly told me to go and fetch a Homeopath doctor — Dr. Hassan who was quite famous in our locality. He was referred to our father by several neighbors — even my mother wanted to see him but my father had little faith in homeopathy. I was told to bring Dr. Hassan home.

So I went along — already knew where he had his clinic. It was always crowded. Dr. Hassan was a tall. slightly bent with age man with pince-nez glasses that he would remove from time to time. I thought he was proud of his glass but did not really need it. He had a long pointed beard which was  well kept. I immediately thought of my father — he would not like Dr, Hassan. Any way I waited for my turn to come and requested him for a home visit — my father gave me a letter to describe the “urgent” need. My father was fond of writing such short notes where he often described his own diagnosis also. Doctors always smiled after reading them !

Let me get back to the story. Dr. Hassan was a busy man. He was unwilling to come at first but some patients waiting there  for the doctor for their turn told the doctor that they knew my father and the doctor may go. Dr. Hassan sent me back stating that he would come after 2-3 days.

As he promised he showed up in the evening  of the promised date. I was there. My mother was waiting on the bed. The doctor was given a chair to sit next to the bed. At first the doctor looked at my mother’s face for a while. Then he looked at my mother’s hands — both the palms and reverse. Then he asked to look at her feet.. All these took sometime. My father was getting impatient but the doctor did not know of it.  After all these, Dr. Hassan took out a notebook from the black bag he was carrying and started asking many question about the daily routine, habits, other diseases etc etc.

After all these (took almost 30 mins), gave a few medicine from his bag  Also gave a prescription which he gave me with the instruction to get them from a particular shop in the College Street next to my College (Presidency). This met with some approval from my father as this shop was well-known for pure homeopathic medicines brought directly from Germany.

End result was that my mother’s condition improved. The cough and cold did not completely go away but after Dr. Hassan’s treatment she became comfortable and functional which was a great relief in a family of 4 with two teen age boys and a busy father.

As I mentioned, no amount of treatments by two established allopathic doctors in the locality (Dr. Guha and Dr. Manibabu) did any good for months. So, the improvement surprised us all.

Was it a pure coincidence ? Many allopathy-fan and homeopathy-hater would like you to believe so.

But one thing I liked was the thoroughness with which Dr. Hassan went about his job — the meticulous examination of the nature of the patient and her health with family history, eating habits. No allopathy doctor really bothered about them.

We come from a family of famous Ayurvedic doctors who were called “Kabiraj” in Bangal. My father knew a lot of the procedure, treatment that he often used in the family with success.  He told us an Ayurcedic doctor would also try to find out the nature of health of the patient in the same way an homeopath does.

Why do the allopathic doctors do not “usually” follow this practice ? Why  are they so antibiotic-happy doctors ? I often tried to tell them about my family history but most did not care  except blood pressure, heart attack etc. They hardly ask about food habits which are the most important thing to inquire. May be good allopathic doctors do but most don’t. They check the temperature, look at the throat and then prescribe an antibiotic. An antibiotic is a strong medicine !

But homeopathic doctors are also a bit funny sometimes. They hardly ask you to do any tests. They have this weird confidence that they can cure almost every things by giving those little (tasty) sweet balls of medicine. I would imagine that a doctor would have decreasing confidence with age. But homeopathy doctors are supremely confident in their sweet little balls.

As a physical chemist (I dare not say chemist as shall be confused with a druggist — a curse on professional chemists!) , I would imagine that the sweet balls containing natural extracts can be quite powerful I can also imagine that that if they are gentle, the effects may not be fully reproducible because it would depend on the constitution of the patient.

An effect will certainly be reproducible if it is forced upon us . That is probably what an allopathic medicine does. And often with good results. But force factor needs to be remembered. Your body is driven out of its natural equilibrium. That could be dangerous in itself.

At the end it probably helps if we keep an open mind. After all, we understand so little of our own immune response , and its variations from person to person.

 

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

 

 

 

 

 

To Students : Self-correction is always a better option than self-justification

July 25, 2017

[THIS BLOG IS FOR STUDENTS BUT OTHERS ARE WELCOME TO READ IT]

When you make a mistake, accept it and acknowledge it clearly. Do not try to self-justify. And do not try to lie or bluff your way out.

It of course needs courage to accept one’s own mistakes. It is not easy. Not every body can do it. Actually it tells volumes about a student’s character.

Self-justification is the worst answer to a mistake. It just lowers you in front of others.

I have seen students often try to blame another student or even the adviser. But the major responsibility in most cases lies with the student who was executing the idea or the experiment. In most cases, the responsibility was made quite clear.

Let me chronicle from the past an incident  where I made a horrible mistake. This was when I was in Chicago. As a result of the mistake the result looked good, very good,  and what Professor Stuart Rice of the University of Chicago was expecting. So, we were all happy that evening when I brought in the graphs to show to Stuart.

During the course of my night’s work I found a mistake that ruined all the goodness of the result. I checked and checked but alas there was no escape from the unpleasant truth that I had made a mistake in my earlier calculation..

So, next morning, I walked into Stuart;s office with the new graphs. Stuart took  a look at my face and stated “So, there was a mistake?” I said “I am sorry — I did not catch it at that time”. He gave a nice smile and said “Biman, it is okay. Only a dead man does not make a mistake”.

That was really a lesson of my life.

But of course every guide is not like Stuart Rice ! But even at the face of reprimand be honest and admit mistakes. Your adviser shall ultimately respect you for this.

Research is hard stuff. It is easy to make mistakes. Actually mistakes are part of a student’s life. But first try to find your own mistake, second admit it when others find out.

Be a winner ! Good luck !

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

Dictatorship of the proletariat — but in culture and not in economics

July 23, 2017

[This is meant to be a fun piece — the fact that I have to state that explicitly speaks volumes about my jokes !!]

In Bengal we grew up hearing lectures on the “Dictatorship of Proletariat”. Also how the world belongs to the working people not to the “parasite”rich class. Even my own father reminded me that intellectuals are parasites of the society — a fact that must have contributed immensely to my self-esteem.

Well — coming to the dictatorship of the proletariat — it did not quite go that way — at least not for the time being.

But in one sense “the dictatorship of the proletariat” seems to have already occurred. This is in the world of culture. Here I use the term proletariat in the sense of “having little in culture “. Let me further define the term. A proletariat in culture (PIC) is a person who has not read (or yet to read)  a few (4-5) good books of literature (be in any language), no taste of classical music, has not visited any painting gallery or museum, drinks 3X Rum instead of say a fine wine, no taste of good tea or coffee (not Starbuck coffee whose beans however can be bearable sometimes. Note that many now has money to spend on good things, but ….

I recently saw a popular You Tube video which was less than ordinary but visited by  many millions. The main appeal was in its latent vulgarity and stupidity. Then I found that even when available many good songs are visited by only a few thousand times/ Classical music fairs worst — especially Indian. An extremely nice “Mix — Classical music”  available in You Tube got only half-a-million hits. This is an amazingly good collection but getting less views/listeners. The silly song & dance programme I am speaking of enjoying much popularity. This is the beginning of PIC — dictatorship of the proletariat.

In contrast Beethoven’s “Odd to Joy” fared much better with more than 12.5 million hits. I would imagine that a good portion of those are from the Western countries/

Flow of money have always influenced, if not dictated, the growth of culture. there is a famous saying “Greed is the driving force of human civilization.”.

Now it is more likely greed or desire for money, fame or notoriety through internet and social media is driving the course of civilization. There are so many below average performances uploaded on you tube that it is often hard to find the original famous music or song. Talk of being drowned by mediocrity.

I often think of uploading of my own song. But last time tried to sing, a few in the audience (my friends !) asked for money in return of  listening to my music.  I shudder what could  or would happen if every body after listening to my You Tube performance asked for the same. But may be no body shall listen.

Then there is the use of fancy mobiles. I see in Metro rail that every body has a mobile better than mine which is fine with me. I for long had the pride of the poor.  For long I proudly carried a simple old Reliance mobile (no touch pad etc) but my students forced me to raise my standard. I am quite uncomfortable with the machine because I am always afraid that I shall ruin it (no doubt I never could become an experimentalist !). How do experimentalists operate those multi-crore machines God only knows ?

I do not like mobiles. Period. They infringe on your freedom like no other thing ever did to me. It wakes you up from sleep at its own “free will”.

But it certainly has been a great unifying force in Indian society. Rich or poor — everybody is addicted to mobile phone. I have not seen else where such addiction to mobile.

I recently was fortunate to walk through many amazing places in Rome, Italy but no where I was disturbed by continuous ring and talking of/on mobile. It would have grotesque on Palantine Hill and in Roman Forum. There were picture takers but otherwise solemn silence in most places — except the guides and their explanations.

But in Namma Metro rail (Bangalore), a considerable number of passengers are busy making that all important conversation that would determine their life. I of course shout at my students from train  — a phenomenon that I attribute to the unsettling atmosphere in Metro train.

Open your TV — you shall be forced to watching either a song & dance programme (with semi-nude girls (cannot be called women)), or a cooking lesson or lecture on food of different states of India. There is a better channel on travel which is bearable — days of good serials are over. I found many to watch serials from Ukraine or Poland  or Spain or what ever.

When we were growing up, there were lots of programme from AIR on classical music. May be there still are  but I hardly open TV any more.

May be time has come to  call for a unity of the cultured few. I end with recollecting a scene from an old movie (Grand Escape by Jean Renoir ?). In the movie a group of French freedom fighters were trying to escape. Although supporting the plan, a senior person refused to go with them stating that he won’t make it. Instead he offered to help by creating a diversion. He was shot in the process. The scene I am speaking had the Senior French person lying on bed critically injured, and the German general who was in charge of the prison (a castle) ardently telling him not to die because then he would have no body to discuss and enjoy finer things of life. They became good friends during  the captivity when they spent many enjoyable evenings over good wine.

Culture can bring enemies together provided they are cultured.

 

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bagchibiman.com

Why and when an Institute or Organization turns vindictive against its own scientist employee ?

July 19, 2017

[Scientists are creative people and as a result more vulnerable than others. This  blog originated partly  from a poem that I read long time ago and also from a speech in Fydor Dostoevsky’s  famous novel ” The Idiot”. ]

I read a simple but great poem in my childhood which goes like this. A person of repute gives up fighting for a just cause which was going to affect him and others badly. When a friend asked him why he gave up. our protagonist gave an answer that still reverberates through my mind. “There is no hope &  value to life when the protector himself turns against  the person he is supposed to protect and instead  attempts to destroy him. ” In Bengali it sounds quite marvelous (Rakshak Jetha Bhakshak) but I remember verbatim only the last two lines that constitute the answer. I have tried in vein to find the full poem.

Science world has seen much vindictive action by Institutions and organizations over the centuries — most famous of course are the cases of Copernicus and Galileo.  Closer to home, we have the cases of  Dr. Subhas Mukhopadhyay  who was hounded out of his Labs by jealous colleagues who went at great length to destroy him. There are/were many others.

Dr. Subhas Mukhopadhyay committed suicide, a broken and frustrated man. Frustrated by the bureaucracy and cruelty of the then West Bengal Government and his jealous peers. He can be rightfully considered a father of  in vitro fertilization (IVF)…. He created  world’s second and India’s first child using IVF. The child, named Durga,  was born only 67 days after the first IVF baby in the UK. Let me remind you that Dr. Robert Edwards received Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2010 for IVF, for the first human child, Louise Brown, born on 25 July 1978.  Dr. Mukhopadhyay committed suicide  as he was not allowed to publish his findings, refusal by the Indian Government to allow him to attend international conferences, insult by a committee of colleagues — all appalling actions by the administration. It is highly likely that India missed a Nobel Prize because of this.

In the great novel “The Idiot” the main protagonist, the Prince,  Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin , delivered an emotional speech while traveling in a train. This speech is favorite to many of us. In this speech, the Prince argued the cruelty of a death sentence.  His logic ran as follows. When you are in a war, you always have some hope of survival, even in a grim situation. However, when a death sentence is given by humans to a person held as a prisoner, the person has no hope any where. This is because the society that is supposed to protect him, condemned him to death. Note Dostoevosky did not argue in favor of the accused but showed in a very precise way the negative side of a death sentence.

I have my own personal story to tell, a sad one though. My father-in-law, Mr. Kalidas Mukherjee, was a well-known Botanist. If you ever go to Darjeeling Botanical Garden — a really great place with a beautiful garden set on a hilly terrain in  Darjeeling, you can still find his name in the list of curators in the office building of the Garden. He retired a deputy director — could not become the director of the famous Shibpur Botanical garden (SBG) in Calcutta.  The reason he could not make it because SBG upper officers  filed a case against him on a trivial ground. One day the clerk with the ledger book was out for some reason. The workers who collected some woods from the Garden every day,  entered them in the Garden ledger book for record. In the absence of the clerk in the evening, they requested my father-in-law to allow them to go as it was already getting  dark. As already mentioned, the clerk who was supposed to do the job was missing. So, my FIL  out of consideration to these poor workers authorized them on a piece of paper. Even though a Curator of the Botanical garden, presumably he did not have the right to do so. Note that it was a matter of a couple of rupees which even in 1975 was not much.

This note was used against him ! Everybody knew that my FIL was a scrupulously honest man but he was popular — very popular — even with the Governor of West Bengal. So, people were jealous.  They took action against him.

This led to a case that lasted for 8 years — my FIL won, but it caused so much pain to the honest man that he suffered a heart attack in 1978 from which he never fully recovered.

Now let us come to the subject of my blog. It seems to happen with some regularity that Institutes or organizations turn against an individual, often a competent and successful person.

The driving force is usually jealousy. But I have also seen there is are usually  only one, two (or three) persons who spearhead the “crusade” against the person whom they want to destroy. In India, ironically, a formal approach is often adopted that starts with a “show cause” notice. Then one forms a committee, like in the case of Dr. Subhas Mukhopadhyay.

What is really unfair in the whole business is that while almost always there are a few ( 2 to 3) individuals who are behind the mayhem but nothing happens to them ! They act from behind, like the “Meghdoot” or “Indrajeet” of Ramanaya. They do the mischief but go around, presenting a “holier than thou” attitude. You need a Rama to bring them to justice.

But we need to understand the phenomenon at a deeper level. The small group of people who try to destroy an outstanding individual by using the so-called legal committees etc. are often driven by motives that are not visible. Jealousy is one, but greed and power are other causes. Examples of motives include small un-lawful privileges (often quite trivial, laughable), indirect (remote) power control. It is easy to rally mediocre and sub-mediocre people against an outstanding individual, because “merit is always offensive”.

What is the way out of this ? Or, is there any way out of it ? One thing is certain — one must down play one’s own success. In India, it is also important to appear humble. Additionally, one needs to keep a low profile. Do not make people jealous.

Remember Friedrich Nietzsche “Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive.”

But a creative scientist tends to be an excitable creature, all the above remedies are hard for him/her to practice. But one needs to adopt.

In the mean time, we all have a responsibility to see that wrong things are not done to an individual in the pretext of a small error or  mistake, like what happened in the case of my Father-in-Law, or ADr. Subhas Mukhopadhyay. These should be killed in the bud. But we need courage !

 So, Bon Courage to you all !

 

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

 

 

 

How far can you feel safe in a foreign land ? Reality versus psychology

July 16, 2017

Our students are increasing feeling unsafe studying abroad. Too many bad things have happened in the recent past to ignore the safety issue.

But if you count not by number but by percentage or fraction, the magnitude  of crime against Indian students or otherwise is still quite low.

But these things are deeply psychological. I remember the occassion clearly as if it happened yesterday. It was  spring pf 1980 — that was a time I was working hard to finish my PhD at Brown University. One late afternoon in the weekend.  I was going to computer center which meant crossing of a wide road (Thayer street) in front of Chemistry department. As a car full of young people went by, one of them put his head outside the car window and shouted “You Iranian, go back to Iran and dig oil”. This was followed by loud laughter and shouts of approval — the car was full of young people — clearly intoxicated.

But that episode left a permanent mark in my mind. I tried to shout back that I was not an Iranian but clearly would not have made any difference.

I did face several such “insults” during my stay at the USA.  Much worse things now happen almost every where in the western world.

However, we must remember the following.  The number of Indians have increased enormously every where. During our time only 100,000 or so Indians were there. Now we count in millions. So, chance of friction has increased many folds.

Should our students feel so insecure that they should think twice about going abroad to study ? This is a question whose time has come to discuss openly.

First, let us be frank. Going by statistics only,  an Indian woman (6-60 years), after dark , is more safe in New York/Chicago than in most cities of India. Think of Delhi before you feel insecure in New York. Where do you find young women getting raped in cars, trains ? Forget open areas. In the Salt Lake city of Kolkata, rape and violence against women are quite common..

Statistics clearly show that Indian cities are more dangerous for women. The fear is mostly psychological, expected when you are in a foreign land.  And fear is contagious.

For young men, the situation is different. They might have more secure life in India than abroad, although less opportunities.

Most of our students go abroad to find a good job, more money — in short, better (material) life. This is still lures many although the appeal has decreased considerably of late. Another group that goes are the ones who do not make it in India but who has resources to afford foreign study.

It is okay to face challenges when you are young.

It is okay to face difficulties. Life in India is also not easy, although you do have the psychological advantage and being close to relatives.

Nothing is going to change in a hurry. But young will always take up the challenge.

 

Biman Bagchi.

Do first boys & girls in exams make second rate researchers ?

July 11, 2017

In a well-known book entitled “Country of First Boys”,  Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, writes a poignant sentence :

” When the obsession with first boys overshadows the education system (I think that is happening in India), then there is enough reason to be worried. If something as narrow as coming first becomes the objective, then the priorities of education get violated.”

He went on to mention that

“My book includes a chapter on the Vedas. The Vedas may not say anything on atheism, but they say a lot about agnosticism, uncertainty. At the end, it says ‘maybe there is someone’, ‘maybe there is no one’.

I think this uncertainty has immense value. “

I was really amazed to read Amartya Sen’s statement — frankly, I felt quite uncomfortable, It is because this is the precise statement I have been making for the last 20-30 years.

I have always stated (now I must put my view in a hurry before Prof. Sen utters them) that  the real research ability of a student is tested when he/she works in an area only partly known to him/her. That is, the ability to work with uncertainty is utmost important. Unfortunately, good students often train themselves in such a fashion (as in JEE exams) that they know every thing beforehand.  They do not leave room for uncertainty or unknown.

Research is often the search of unknown. It is like traveling in an unknown land (at least in principle). So, the boys who experimented with outside studies fare better.

Unfortunately we value scholarship too much in India — our exams are all knowledge based.

In addition, we do not teach our children to experiment with study, writing —  with life in general. We like things straight-jacketed.

But research cannot be done that way.

A related concern is that system has become far too powerful now which is bad for creative people. there should be room for eccentricity. Creative people are often eccentric, as we all from examples.

I think every body knows and believes in what Amartya Sen said or wrote. But why do we still persist with our “rotten” exam system ?

 The reason is, like in most cases, it is easy. Otherwise we have to teach our children to think. Then they shall ask uncomfortable questions whose answers we many times would not know. Think of our school and college teachers. Frankly speaking, with many notable exceptions, majority cannot answer or explain any deep question. How can they teach in an experimental, thought provoking way ?

The system we pursue was the one put together by British to produce public servants (clears) who shall obey their orders. Not to produce scientists.

So, we all know the remedy but nothing is getting done — except blogs like this.

 Rabindranath wrote a great son which starts like this “Keno cheye achho go ma, mukho pane ? … Era tomai Kicchu debe na debe na …”

In my poor translation, addressing mother India, Rabindranath says ” Why are you looking expectantly at us, Oh Mother ? … They will not give you any thing …”

Rabindranath tried hard to change  the educational system.

We are going through tremendous self-deception.

 

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

 

 

How to avoid common mistakes that trouble Indian students’ English writing (an increasing menace)?

July 8, 2017

[ Writing proper English has become a huge problem in Indian academia. I see no end to this “torture”. It requires a collective will — a sort of revolution to get rid of this menace.  Often even senior people write poor English]

In the famous movie “My Fair Lady”,  Professor Henry Higgins lamented (in the first song of the movie), “Speak proper English and you are regarded as a freak”). I guess from recent writing by Indian students we can change this slightly, “Write proper English and you are regarded as a freak”. No body things that it is essential to write proper English.

Over the last thirty years, I have corrected many reports, papers and theses — not only of my own students but of many others. As a result, while my own English writing has taken a severe beating (my own sense of grammar has increasingly become screwed up), I find a sense of despair growing inside me.

Let us face it.  This difficulty of Indian students to express themselves in a coherent way has become a serious bottle-neck. This is destroying career of many PhD students and young researchers. It is a serious problem that needs to be tackled. It may be the emergence of social media with SMS language (“lingo”) has made things worse, at least in the short run and in the recent past. Interestingly, girl students tend to write better than the boys which probably is no surprise, but needs to be taken notice  of.

I have been able to see certain wrong/questionable/damaging patterns in students’ writing that should be talked about because some  deficiencies can be easily rectified.

First, our students are not taught to write simple straight-forward English, like “Ram goes to school every morning”. Some how in the last 20 years or so, schools have dome away with the practice of giving students practice in essay writing, make precis (that is, make an abstract out of a long paragraph) …… everything has moved towards objective. But note that even in GRE you need to write an essay. The popular joke among faculty here is that we get a lot of applications from IIT students because they fail to clear GRE English minimum marks while scoring full in GRE quantitative. Mostly true.

Second, Indian students love the use of superlatives and intensifiers. “Good” is not enough — it has to be “very good.” “Interesting” is not enough, it has to be “highly interesting”, “very interesting”, “most interesting” even “extremely interesting”. “Important problem” is not enough, it has to be “very important problem” …. the list goes on.

That is, students are not convinced with the strength of the adjective. It has to paired with an intensifier or superlative to make it stronger. Civil engineers do the same when they build bridges where it is customary to double the requirement of cement, stone chips etc. to reinforce the bridge.

Use of superlatives and intensifiers is perhaps rooted in our own language. But they should be consciously avoided.

I remember an episode from my childhood. I used to love to fly kites and play matches with kites. I was then barely seven years old, and just learned to fly kites. In the very first match of my life, I was successful  in “cutting lose” my opponents kite. It was  absolutely fabulous. I shouted at top of my voice “Vo katta” — means “I have cut your kite — shame on you!”. The other guy who was flying his kite from back,  a distance away and was known to me. He was not a good player.

Soon, he flew in one more kite and attacked me, Just like the previous time, he took his kite below mine, and started pulling the kite up. It was same as the last time. I again played the same game  — made my kite go downwards so that my string lied on his string. But this time, I went one step more — I tried to push my kite down an extra bit. One elder friend who was watching the fight told me not to do that — I did not listen –did that extra bit. And alas ! my kite was cut lose and I had to hear “Vo Katta” from other side.

I still remember the lesson, Never do more than what is necessary. But we all do this mistake continuously — both in personal and professional life. I do it myself often.

Use of intensifiers before adjectives might not be as damaging as my kite flying but it hinders the flow of a sentence and serves no purpose.

Another common mistake, and perhaps more serious, is the use of participles.  Many students use “have shown” even when the work was published 50 years ago — even hundred years ago. I have corrected sentences like “Einstein has derived a relation between diffusion and friction ….”.  May be the student does not want Einstein to be dead — a sentiment I fully endorse but English language does not care for sentiments like this .

The other problem in Indian English is the excessive use of passive voice. This might originate from a weakness in our character, and also Indian habit of avoiding being direct.

Many people dislike me because I am direct. This is a No-No in India. They regard me as unsophisticated. The Indian dictum : Never say anything directly — you could come to harm.

However in Science writing , you better be direct.

I strongly recommend to students to read and use  the “little Bible” of English writing that is the book (“Elements of Style”) by Strunk and White. It is widely available. At Brown University, it used to be called “the little Bible of English writing”

However jocularly I describe, it has been 33 years of pain in correcting English.

My advice to students : Learn to write correct English. Otherwise you shall remain stuck in a low level in your chosen profession.

 

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

 

In the world of give and take, it is the giver who ultimately wins.

July 4, 2017

From the day we are born, we start taking from the world. First we take from mother. Then parents and family. We do not easily learn the art of giving.

But it is essential to practice give and take. Seclusion is not an answer.  One needs to interact and interact positively. Practice giving, deliberately.

If you look around, you will see that everybody wants to take, as if everybody always has their palm opened upwards to accept. The palm does not easily turn downwards to give.

Nonetheless, it is the giver who almost always wins. In Bengali (and I am sure in every language) there is a well-known saying “the more you give, the more you receive”.

I am particularly sensitive about our PhD students and young researchers, and even college students. In academic institutions, we find two kinds of people. One class is always eager to take, whether it is help or idea or whatever. Then there is a second group who does not mind giving and sharing. The latter advances, always, by improving, and ultimately wins.

If you look carefully around, you shall find that givers progress or have progressed more than takers. A good leader always gives. Takers often are reduced to insignificance while the givers grow in stature and power. Even success in science research follow this pattern.

Note that it can be stressful even for the givers, even when they are benevolent. You might be willing to give but you want a good taker in the sense the person receiving the favor must make good use of it.

This is particularly true for teacher (giver) -student (taker) relationship. There are endless number of stories about this relationship .

Even a brilliant scientist is reduced to insignificance at the end of his day if he fails to create a following or a school which is only possible by selfless giving away of knowledge and expertise and teaching endlessly. A hard business.

Everybody quickly recognizes a taker, and either people shy away from him, or he can be used to somebody’s goal.

However, a giver can not be easily lured into petty, and sometimes unfair jobs, by showing a carrot.

Therefore, at the core, practice of giving makes you a good man. Being helpful helps, always.

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bimanbagchi.com