A practical guide to academic success : Indian students need to learn to combine respect & reverence with criticism

August 14, 2018

 We do not usually like or respect students who are not critical. But criticism must be expressed properly. I find most of the students do not know how to handle these twin aspects. It is an art and needs attention and practice. Indian students are often too diffident outside, but not humble inside, at least most of what I have seen.

Key to success  : Respect others, especially elders. Listen attentively but be critical. Respect does not mean a lack of critical assessment. Similarly, criticism should not be expressed as to convey a lack of respect. Professors are sensitive human beings, may be with a tat too large an ego. So, be careful but do not refrain from voicing your concern.

All these of course need to be accompanied by hard work and self-study. Actually, a student can hardly be critical unless she/he  venture into serious self-studies, and begin to develop her/his own viewpoint. It could then be a lot of fun.

 This combination  is important. I have known  this since  childhood, from parents and teachers but have not always practiced it with due diligence because certain irreverence I had which is sometimes appreciated especially in the US science community. However, I have become more conscious of it (with age) . I then started a “research” into this and noticed, among the children around me and among students —- a child that grows up with respect for adults generally does well.  Some parents know it well, and deliberately foster the respect, with good results. And the parents who are sarcastic at home, continuously criticizing others, create in their children a big deficiency.

In a society where younger generation is increasingly becoming disrespectful, an additional -ve input from home can be dangerous.

Of course, as one grows up into an adult, a certain degree of disrespect or irreverence towards elder generation is natural. It actually starts at schools when we start making fun of teachers. I have seen made by parents is to encourage this behavior. Parents should just refrain from such act. At least, be neutral.

  But why and how lack of respect harm a child or a student? My eternal quest ! We must rationalize.

In our time, that is when we were growing up long long time ago,  society was such that this respect used to come naturally. Also we used to life stories of many great men of India — thin books with coloured cover.  read a lot about great men. That had several effects. First, we felt humble and small. Second, an idealism was encouraged. I myself grew up at Bally, opposite (across  the great Ganges) of Dakshineswar temple (of Ramakrishna Paramhanso) and next to Belur (with Ramakrishna Asram) of Vivekananda.

Students often need to differ with the teacher. It often happens that the teacher/professor is wrong, and even adamant.  The most difficult thing is to communicate or deliver a criticism with respect. Even adult cannot do it — most of us. It requires courage, it requires acumen, and above all requires respect. This cannot be a show. It must be honest.

It is good to have respect and faith. U shall find that it helps in life, to have a genuine trust, even when things might not be what you expect them to be.

Life often takes a strange path, more so in India where success rate is less. So, trust, faith and respect is even more necessary. But you need a critical attitude to differentiate between correct and incorrect, good and bad, and recognize a good work or even a good scientist.

Good luck and  Bon Voyage !

Biman Bagchi  , IISc.,
Bangalore, 14/08/2018     
Advertisements

How could some one steal my idea even before I had it (story of six dogs and seven bones)!

August 12, 2018

This is the most annoying part in our research career and I find this   happening frequently these days. When ever I seem to have a good idea, i find that some body  else had done it before., often just last year or a few months ago.

This could be regarded as funny but could also be serious, and most maddening.

On one end it means too many people doing research in “my” areas — far too many. We do not need these many people. It is like population explosion in science and it is taking the fun away. The earlier “gentlemen under the elms” approach is fast disappearing.

Bob Zwanzig used to laugh at my misfortune, recline back on  great chair (he was a big man), and  said “As for good problems, it is always the problem of seven dogs and six bones”. But then I had somebody great to complain to. These days there are so few senior (to me) people that I can complain to ! Actually I am resigned to listening complain from juniors.

Now, coming to  the syndrome of “ideas being stolen before you had them” — they are not that bad, if you stop to pause or stop to lament. The main advantage is that you have less work to do which is a good think at my age. It also gives you a bit of ego satisfaction, particularly if the other guy did not do a good job. “I could have done it better” satisfaction.

On the bad side, it could also mean you are thinking conventionally and of simple problems.

It is unlikely that deep original  problems are that easy to think of.

So, let us not feel bad when some body  steals your idea before you had it ! Science  remains full of possibilities as new horizons are created almost every day.

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.,

12-08-2018, Bengaluru

The strongest resource : Why many students fail to improve, yet can rectify substantially ?

July 28, 2018

 

These are the things we do not discuss as much as we should be doing. Mentoring is not our strongest point.

When we joined the Presidency College, College Street, Calcutta in 1970 it was still considered great (awesome in the present day lingo),  My mother told  me (somewhat jocularly) that even if we replaced the professors by lamp posts, the students would still do well — capture all the top positions in the Calcutta University Exams.  Such was the reputation of Presidency College students those days !  PC used to have on roll top 8-10 of the top 10 students of the state, and that was awesome.  IIT craze was yet to catch up. We students did study a lot together, somehow had a lot of respect for each other, a lot of time was devoted to movies and poetry and literature. Coffee House was just across the street where we used to assemble.

We learned a lot from each other. I realized later that there was a tremendous message in  this that I failed to appreciate till very late.How was so ? I shall elaborate a bit later

Now after almost  40 years, when I look back, I find that even in such outstanding student group, not more than 20-30% of the students can be considered to have made a mark in what ever field or area they chose to pursue. Many  went to research and then seem to have performed a clever vanishing trick. Sure,  a few of these 20% students made remarkable contributions, and we hear about them.  Thus, the reputation of the college is  like one’s stock market portfolio — you need one or two to perform outstandingly well. Their success hides the grim reality that a good number does not turn up at higher levels.

Why did and does this happen , and happen repeatedly ? I am aware that it is difficult in India.

First is of course laziness and  a close second is the lack of motivation. Hard work goes a long way and it always pays. But vast majority of students can be categorized as not-so-lazy, not-so-hard-working students.

So, let is focus on this not-so-lazy students. They are often not bad. But I have seen in many  progress remains slow, both in their quality of work and output. This is often accompanied by a lack of progress in understanding. Many students even in 4th year do not have any clue how to go about. What is even worse — they do not know or understand that they are not doing well. This is the most difficult issue that I have found, when students do not understand that they are not performing well. It may not be measured in terms of publication — in some sreas publication come easy and does not mean much.

What to do with such students ? How can one solve the problem and help the students ?

To a sensitive person, a human mind is a vast sea of ocean. What goes on inside is hard to fathom, especially when there is a constant effort to hide the real person. the training to hide the real mind starts early in one’s life, at least in India. This problem of projecting a different persona is somewhat dangerous because one can be misunderstood.

I have seen students who have high opinion of themselves which is good to an extent but not all the way. The opposite of having a low opinion of oneself is also not good. But over-confidence is bad, too high a self-high-opinion (pervasive these days because of pampered one child syndrome) is destructive.

This high opinion could be dangerous. It prevents you to be humble, to learn from your peer group. Selfishness of course the other. Tragedy is that these arrogant (and selfish) students are immune to advice.

 So, we are beginning to see why some students improve but a good many do not. Let us pursue further.

A huge problem I have faced is to “get across” to the student. Somehow they think that they reached their mecca when they join PhD at IISc.

I always tell the story of our Professor William Risen, then the Chairman of Chemistry at Brown University. After the courses started, one fine afternoon we all the new students were called for a meeting with the Chairman. When we went to the hall, there were cookies (real ones) and coffee and doughnuts ( we had a Dunkin Doughnuts s just 2-3 minutes walk from the chemistry department). Prof. Risen (we used ti refer to him as Bill) was already sitting on the Table (yes — on the table) with a cup of coffee in his hand. He used to come in before every body.

 As we all sat down, Bill gave one of the most useful speech that I have had heard in my life. He told us that “Forget that you are smart. That has now been factored out. It would all depend how hard we could work”. He then drew a curve on the black board — output versus time spent. He told us the total output is an integration or the area under the curve. And that one must remain motivated and focused  all through the PhD years. “AND BEHAVE LIKE A TEAM ! LEARN FROM EACH OTHER” .

 The pep talk was important. Important was the repeated emphasis on motivation, collaboration and the desire to do well.

The same Chairman again met us as the graduating class (4th and 5th year) students, and again told something amazing. This time he told us “okay — you have done not so bad, getting your PhD, but as soon as you walk out of the front door of the Chemistry department, there is a jungle out there. No more kid’s gloves.” He also told us “the certificate you shall get will open a few doors at a few places, but as you enter the room through that door, the certificate is just a piece of paper, of no value in immediate future. You have to perform to survive.”

Owao ! Both the time we held our breath but however dumb we were ,we were not that dumb as not to understand the importance of the words of our chairman.

Points were clear : ” FEAR IS THE KEY ! AWARENESS OF FAILURE IS THE KEY ! YOU ARE JUST ANOTHER STUDENT, THAT YOU ARE  PRONE TO FAILURE AND HENCE EXPENDABLE” — that INFORMATION WAS THE KEY INPUT !

Now I often wonder why  Professor Risen’s lectures influenced me so much! Was it because never before any body told me that success  depends on two things : motivation and fear?  Both make you work hard. Also they make you humble. We were told in no ambiguous terms that intelligence and smartness do not count — what counts are motivation, honesty, focus and hard work. [I am deliberately mixing tenses here].

 I remained ever grateful to Bill Risen for those two short lectures, delivered over coffee, cookies and doughnuts, himself sitting on the table of our seminar hall. A tall man 6’4″ tall, extremely handsome but those two afternoons, he was all business. Ernest and sincere — full of warnings .

So, my  points :  students often have false faith, too confident and not scared. They should be scared. They should of course be motivated. But like Sher Khan told Mogli in the Jungle Book, “you should be scared.” Mogli finally listened and was saved by Balu and the vultures.

Fear is often your best friend. Fear of not reaching great heights in research, fear of failure, fear of not having a career.

As I told repeatedly, keep company of motivated students — stay away from students with “Chalta hai” attitude. I see too many students spending too long at tea/coffee kiosks, snacks breaks……. AND YOU NEED TO WORK ON WEEK-ENDS, AND WORK TOGETHER.

Hard working students can always “repair” their limitation of a weak back-ground. I studied mainly Physics and Math during MSc. and also first two years of PhD. I was of course lucky to have teachers like Larry Sirovich (stll active), Bob Cole, Kadanoff and others.

But students can find teachers. It is to their advantage to find good teachers.

But at the end of the day motivation and desire to attain great heights are probably the two most important attributes. And the knowledge that it is too easy to fail ! Things are improving fast in India in terms of opportunities, so students need to use them.

 Be judgmental and do not easily compromise. Sound values can help you working hard. Cheap values and politicking just are avenues of disaster and failure. And often there is no safety net.

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.

28-07-2018,  Bangalore,

======================

Monkey Invasion of Malleswaram

July 21, 2018

The number of monkeys in our IISc campus is on decline.  I do not know the reason but there are less monkeys showing their face across my window. They seem to be located near the Tower Building of IISc. It is worth wondering. Why do the monkeys like the Tower Building ? May be Kissinger was right —  “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”. Back in 1980s, there were monkeys every where. But sighting monkeys have become rare.

So, I was quite pleased when  we had a huge invasion today morning of our apartment complex by at least several dozens of monkeys, of different sizes.  They came in the early morning, around 8’O clock. . I had just settled in front of my computer after making myself a good cup of coffee. I came out of our ground floor apartment hearing the huge hue and cry, and was welcomed by the spectacle of monkeys hanging out of the ceiling, on the balconies, and the two big trees near our apartment.

Sherlock Homes strongly advocated  the art of watching human behavior. But watching monkeys can be more rewarding. And indeed, I was soon handsomely rewarded. First I found a big, kind of old monkey (looked like a senior citizen) walking across the fence with a bunch of ripe banana. It was so dignified ! He clearly declared that the banana belonged to him — he was the rightful owner. If U think about it, he might be right because if we did not use the many middlemen who serve to get the banana on your table, then the monkey would have had them. And who does not know that it is immoral to use middle-men ?

As my delightful vigil continued, i soon found two monkeys carrying between them a large bag of mangoes. The bag was heavy with many mangoes. The two monkeys must have found the bag in a balcony or a kitchen, and a combined team work saw them carrying it across. Soon they stopped at a open place, and then reversed the bag’s opening to let the mangoes fall to the ground (here concrete). Several more smaller monkeys immediately ran across and picked up the ripe ones.

Almost every monkey was having a fruitful outing. Some emerged with carrots, some with other vegetable. I found one emerged with eggs. I did not know that monkeys eat eggs . I thought that they were purely vegetarian , or rather “fruitarian”. May be they changed their eating habits too. Do they know about cholesterol ? I do not put it past monkeys.

Clearly the monkeys chosen a good time because most of the households were not ready for monkey invasion before 8 in the morning.

There were now too many people chasing the monkeys, most of them were maids who started entering the apartments for morning work or were already washing kitchen utensils. Because some of the monkeys were big, the maids did not venture close to them. But the monkeys either got disgusted with all the shouting or decided they have had enough. They climbed higher ups with their “loot”  and began to eat .You could see the indifference to the people shouting at them. Now some guards appeared with sticks and lathis but the monkeys could care less. First the guards were pretty old and even fat — no match to the agile monkeys. Second, the monkeys were well-organized, led by a veteran big monkey who adopted a philosophical look. He had all the looks of a great leader.

As out own maid came at that time, I had to go inside. Also, action seemed to have been over.

I was left impressed by their team work and discipline. And I also thought we should not unnecessarily call young  naughty kids “monkey ” unless meant as a praise.

 

Biman Bagchi                                     21-07-2018

Bengaluru.

One source of plagiarism that can be rooted out

June 15, 2018

Let me start with a short story from my childhood. In the 5th grade class of UG Government School that I went to, there was a nice boy who used to stand first in the class. Always. Let me refer to him as the First Boy ( cannot use FB as that would mean of course something else …). In one exam, he got nearly perfect score in History which was unheard of. The history teacher proudly told that our First Boy reproduced verbatim from the text book — line-by-line and word-for word. So, according to the teacher, he deserved full marks. All of us were impressed. The First Boy later revealed to us that he had to do this memorization because of his father. He father would beat him with a belt if he could not reproduce the book content line-by-line and word-for-word.

Sad is the story. Our First Boy, however, could not do much later. He did not obtain the Honours, obtained only a pass course BA, so could not get admission to MSc. Last I knew him he was doing nothing. His father died, so he was relatively free. He was an exceedingly nice person. Whenever he saw me he would like to discuss my research. I have lost contact with him. I pray that he is well.

In this story lies the origin of plagiarism. And in our teachers giving endless homework, and checking them, penalizing students who do not do the HW which is often copying from books to home work note books. As in my story, you get the maximum marks if you reproduce the book verbatim, line-by-line, word-for word.

So our children grow up with the value system that it rewards to copy from books. After all,  book is the store house of all knowledge ! Never mind Shakespeare (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,  …….”)

The result ! I have seen over many years that even quite good students become hesitant when I ask them to write something out of the ordinary. If I ask them, they have the ideas but they hesitate to write them down. They hesitate to write anything original — not having not read them in books. The self-doubt and the lack of confidence are real killers. When left alone, they turn to internet, often not out of laziness, but out of the reluctance to write down a sentence of their own. There mind have been trained the wrong way from childhood.

Plagiarism is rampant at all levels of education, in all countries. Some countries do a better job in restricting it, while in some countries are lenient, with disastrous consequences. In India, we even encourage it, through our thoughtless school system.

I argue here that the root cause of Plagiarism lies in two factors : (i) our extensive use of “written homework” in out primary , junior and senior schools. This is greatly aided by unimaginative teachers who might be sincere but “create” students not fit for higher academics.  Students learn to copy from books in their formative age. They learn that copying is allowed. (ii) Second, we never teach students to ask the questions “Why and How”. Instead, we insist that they learn “What and Where”.  A classic example is provided by geography books where we are made to memorize the Capitals of all the countries of the world. “What is the Capital of Kazakhisthan  ?” “What are the minerals found in Jharkhand ?” In fact, even our competitive Exams, although better, foster certain degree of memorization.

I should point out that the same damage is not done to every students — somehow some  students survive the ordeal of doing home work (or, not doing the HW) and still come out unscathed, and remain creative. But our Ramanujan’s disappear ! Geniuses are often weak human beings in the sense that they remain so focused on their subject, that they lack the lifeskill to survive in this cruel world.

Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur was highly against this homework giving, cane-wielding school system/culture.  He suffered enough in the hand of teachers. His father, Maharshi Debendranath Thakur changed school four times but did not work out. So, removed young Rabindranath  from schools and taught him himself. Later when RT established schools and universities, he moved away from the standard model of closed class room teaching. Instead he created a school at Santiniketan, at Bolpur, West Bengal where classes are held in open areas (of course what happens to this experiment when rain comes is a question !).

The main reason for this over-dependence on memorization and home work (both indirectly or directly). Students are not encouraged, and not even allowed time to think. It is indeed amazing that a few ones still survive.

I often read in the newspapers that 80% of our Engineering graduates are not employable. Such announcements are made by the stalwarts of industry. Our children do not learn to think.

I end this Blog with the famous story of Rabindranath, entitled “The Parrot’s Training” (“Tota Kahini” in Bengali).  For a non-Bengali reading person, a nice English translation is available at

https://www.parabaas.com/translation/database/

translations/stories/gRabindranath_parrot.html

The story tells how a happy, singing, free, Parrot was ultimately killed in the attempt to make him “civilized & educated”,  by forcing books through his mouth down his throat. Although a bit exaggerated, but it does capture the essence of our educational system. In our case, we are destroying the free, creative souls and rewarding the few who survive the ordeal handsomely, so the rush to memorize stays put in our system.

Now, back to Plagiarism. If a student grows up thinking that copying is good, he/she shall never be able to stop plagiarism , in some form or other. It would require a lot of brain-washing to convince him that plagiarism in any form is not acceptable.

To stop plagiarism, we would need to stop this memory-oriented, marks oriented examination and evaluation system. But for this to happen we need an educated knowledgeable work force (teachers) that hardly exist in India.

But at least we should sensitize teachers that questions based on “what and where” do not help any body. Nothing gained by knowing the name of the capital of Kazakhistan, but a lot if we know how they live, why they do  what they do for living. For example, a country or state next to ocean always find a vocation that uses the sea : fishing, ships, tourism, while inland people, if they water, base their life on agriculture. Culture also evolves that way. The ability to correlate two and two is an essential life skill.

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.

Bengaluru.

 

What made Richard Feynman such a great teacher ? Let us look at the details.

June 9, 2018

I recently started reading (after a gap of may be after 20-25 years!) the book of path integral formulation by Feynman and Hibbs. Feynman helped me enormously because when I got the offer from Brown University, I desperately needed to catch up on Mathematics and Physics (I was a chemistry honours student at Presidency College, Calcultta University where these subjects were neglected by a chemistry student). The person who came to my help was Richard Feynman. I could buy from College Street Sarat Book House all the three volumes of Lecture Series of Feynman at cheap price. These red books were Rs. 10/ each. It was unbelievably cheap — I could buy new ones (I used to buy old books only — no money).

When  I started reading those books by Feynman, I was really excited. I started with volume 1 — Classical mechanics. Earlier I tried to go through Goldstein — great book as I found later but for a chemistry student, it had less appeal. But Feynman was different. I could understand him. loved it. I finished  volume 1 and read good parts of volume 2 and 3. Those studies really helped me prepare for my studies and courses at Brown University. I could go on taking courses in Math and Physics.

Now, after many years, reading Feynman again, I realize what made Feynman great as a teacher.  He goes into great detail in explaining every thing, does not hesitate to repeat the same things, even straight-forward things repeatedly, unless HE IS SURE that students got it. He is sincere and makes extra efforts to drive home the points he considers important. He draws figures, even simple ones.

Even those not in the field can learn so much from reading these books.

The ability to make things simple is of course a great ability which either most of us do not possess or do not care to attempt. I recently gave several talks in a foreign country. The one I remember most vividly is the one I did a bad job — fairly horrible. It was a late evening talk. The reason partly was that I just did not feel like talking.

This happens repeatedly to people. The reason is that we often do not feel the enthusiasm to  explain, to teach, to relate to students who are the most important part of the audience.

Feynman was always excited about teaching, lecturing. That was a part of his life. Clearly he was extremely devoted, had great affinity for physics and science in general. But the main attribute probably was that HE WAS ALWAYS ASKING QUESTIONS.  ALWAYS SEEKING ANSWERS, IN EVERY SMALL THINGS.

A great teacher is such an asett for the community and for the society because a teacher , a good one, ignites many minds. They lead to enlightenment.

There is a great poem written by Rabindranath Thakur. In this poem he asked the question : Where do you , the great seekers, the great masters get your lamp that enlightens all of us ?”

Indeed, where do Feynman’s of the world get the lamp ? But whatever is the source, they do a lot for all of  us and in the process “leave the footprint on the sands of time”.

I end with the following  famous quote:

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.” Richard Feynman

I always think that every day should be “Teacher’s day”.

Biman Bagchi, IISc

Bengaluru, 09-06-2018.

.

 

 

Creativity and quality of mind

May 31, 2018

My main mentor Robert Zwanzig was a critical man. He is credited of making some of the most fundamental contributions to the area of time dependent statistical mechanics, relaxation phenomena, theory of liquids and many others. A critical but proud man.  He had a very high standard. I use “very” here as an English man (without being one!)  who use adjectives carefully, almost like a miser — but we Indians add “very” as a super-adjective every where.  My students always write “very interesting”, “very good”, as if the main adjectives “good”, “interesting” are never enough. It might reveal our excitable character, but does not do good to our English !

Zwanzig was enormously respected across Physics and Chemistry. He became the Fellow of US Natl Academy at the age of 35. He was among the last two in the Nobel of 1978 and may be some politics removed his name from being a joint winner, and the Nobel was given to a single person, an act our community did not appreciate.

But enough of  this praise of Bob Zwanzig (I always gets carried away). . My intention is to quote one of his  observations. When distinguished visitors (from Physics and Chemistry) used to come to visit him, it was his practice to keep me in his office, so we could  see/interact with the visitor together. It was partly because of  his shyness, also partly due to his dislike of being visited. He was quite a private man.

But before the visitor’s arrival,  Bob often used to give a two minute introduction about the person. It was almost never negative (may be once or twice) but usually kind and considerate. I remember that only on two occasions he praised the expected visitor by stating, “he has a good mind.”. Only later I realized that it was one of the highest praise in his book.

Of late I have been thinking about the meaning of  this : what did Bob mean by “good mind” ?  What is, or who has, a good mind  ? Bob certainly implied a creative mind  but must had also included clarity of thinking in his definition. Since I had known Bob well, I think that he would include choice of problems in science. Bob was extremely careful in selecting his problems. Only a few ideas and areas excited him.

Next set of questions : what defines a good mind ? what is the advantage of having a good mind ? How does it help ?

To answer these questions, I thought it was best to look around a bit, especially among the people I know well, personally, and see if I could find further attributes.

One correlation was easy to find. People who are too jealous or vindictive or harmful to others, often fail. I have seen ample example of this.

Problem of course that we in India have a much smaller number of sample (of good scientists)  to build a good theory. So, I also looked abroad. I have a few amazing friends and colleagues whom I have known well.  Some of them made significant contributions to science.

When I analyzed in detail, one thing became clear : Bob’s good mind meant to include a detached mind that appears on the surface to be simple because these minds do not have time to spend or waste time on those issues or subjects that distract them from their main work in life which is science. They never try to “act clever.”

Charlie Chaplin chronicled a nice story about Einstein, told to CC by Einstein’s wife. One morning Einstein was rather absent minded (observations by his wife) and started playing piano which he played for half-an-hour. He suddenly stopped (did not say “Eureka”), went up-stairs, and did not come down for two weeks. He did not see any body, no interaction — food was taken upstairs by his wife. But when he came down from the upper floor, he had a bunch of notes in his hand — that was the solution of the general relativity.

It is an amazing story that never cease to impress me. The fact that Einstein liked music is widely known. But that he could spend alone for 2-weeks working on a problem (he never came down)  tells you his love of the problem, his determination and concentration and the state of a mind which was not (nor was allowed to be) easily disturbed.

Thus, an outstanding mind for science could have the following credentials. (a) It  can think continuously, and not distracted easily. (b) Clarity of thinking, (c) a detachment which proves extremely useful when needed.

On the other hand, the minds that are too materialistic and also clever and manipulative can never do good science ! In fact, they do more damage to science than simple minded people. But people do not respect these people.

Charlie Chaplin also famously stated (I am paraphrasing) that twentieth century did the right thing in paying respect to Einstein that he so richly deserved.

However, the same is not true for many others ! Actually, I often see that the people with Bob’s “good mind” are pushed around or pushed out, with the place taken by undeserving people.

We are often given examples of ill-acts of outstanding scientists (like Newton’s treatment of Leibnitz). However if you analyze these a bit carefully,  you discover that such acts happened when the great minds have largely ceased to do creative work.

Let the students and younger generation be aware of this. Even if we ourselves are not that good, we should protect the few who are good and can deliver. I was once told that the unique strength of American academic system that good people are not destroyed there, like it is done in many other countries. I hope that it continues to be true and also adopted in other countries. The society and a nation  as a whole can benefit from the protection and freedom to the ones with Bob’s “good mind.”

 

 Biman Bagchi,

IISc. Bengaluru.

 

 

Being in a foreign land as a student or a post doc

May 21, 2018

Being in a foreign land in a young age could be a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD years. But the past is always golden — I must have forgotten the miseries. But overall must had been pretty good. One needs to be a bit adventurous to enjoy the freedom.

 I am writing this blog mainly for our students who are abroad. as I have often been asked by them during my trips  for suggestions, advice on their future life, information regarding jobs at home. Some of the students and post docs studying abroad are a worried lot. There has been a change.

In Bengali literature there were many stories/novels about the exotic foreign lands and the marvelous life that Indian students lived there, especially in the “land of opportunities.”  Of late such stories are far and few. One of the reasons must be that now we have from every family a boy and/or a girl either studying or working in foreign countries. In our small apartment complex of 11 families, children of 9 families are abroad. Thus, being in foreign has lost its charm in India. But the charm has not diminished too much for the students themselves. I believe that PhD students and post Docs are still having fun — more for PhD students. Freedom from family feels great, one can travel, new life style and friends……..

However, there are concerns and good reasons for concerns.

Sadly, these true concerns are getting masked or over-looked. These days we (are forced to) hear so much about the “misery” caused by  the difficulty faced mostly by the IT Engineers living (or, trying to live) abroad, in getting/ not-getting their H1B/H4/H6/H8 … visa in the USA,  that we hardly pay attention to the difficulty or even the precarious conditions faced by our science graduate students and post docs. My comments and suggestions apply (may be to a lesser degree) to engineering students also — those who want to stay in R & D and/or academics. These students are often clueless about the future, and lack the information necessary to act. Fortunately information dissemination about jobs etc are improving due to the better web sites by most organizations.

Yes –the situation now is not as rosy as it used to be some 20-30 years back  when many of us did PhD or post  Doc abroad — job back at home was almost assured. One reason was that only 10% or so used to return back to India.  However, the myth of better job prospect with a foreign degree may not be applicable today. In addition, getting jobs in India has become tough, very tough. The same is also true for those in the USA or Germany.

No body seems to be talking about this crisis. Many Labs in India have now more than 5-6 Post Docs under different schemes & categories. The fashionable areas like Nano Materials are more crowded but less job opportunities once the new centers stop hiring which has started happening.

But again situation may not be really that bad. There are jobs but where no student would like to go — state universities and colleges — all eyes are on IITs, IISER and places like that.

There are jobs in those high profile places but you should be aware, putting bluntly — of the intense competition, and the omnipresent politics that  go on behind almost every selection. But good students will get jobs as we are always looking for good teachers and researchers. Now Indian Institutes are themselves made to compete. So, good students are in demand.

So, what are the course of action and what are the options ? I have a few suggestions & advice.

(i) Do not despair and do not give up. Be persistent. It might take 5-6 years to find a suitable position these days.

(ii) Do not be lazy. Do not pretend that you are an American or a German. Things are not what they seem ! You need to work harder.

You are in a foreign country with unsure future. While you should not feel too insecure but better for you if remember that. So, work on week-ends. Life in academics is fulfilling but only in the long run. Even in the USA, only 10-20% of US students get a good position. The statistics significantly improves if you are fit for industrial jobs. But jobs are drying up even there.

(iii) Be honest and stay honest. Also, try to understand what your adviser is asking/saying. Professors abroad are much milder in speaking, but not so when acting. I knew many students and post docs got discharged (fired) when they thought things are going okay.

(iii) Note that publications are important. Many students are stuck in groups which do not publish. The reason is that in many well-known groups professors are reluctant to publish unless quality is high and they accomplish the said goal in their grant proposal. Also, the professors get enough publication because of large group and many collaboration. Result : Lack of publication of a graduate student. Is there any way out ? This is a tricky situation. I suffered from it because I graduated without a single publication (2-3 were submitted or going to be submitted). I was mortally afraid. Fortunately I published well during my 1st post doc.

My solution : (a) Try to change the group. This is not possible for a PhD student but is a must for a post doc. (b) Try to sensitize your Professor to the situation you are in. Most American student do not need publication at this stage. They mostly take a job in industry or “word of mouth”.

(iv) Please do not be self-centred or selfish. This is a trait I have observed in many Indian students abroad. This will catch up with them in the long run. Being good to  “boss only” does not work as a strategy in the long run. I have seen this trait in many students  — not just Indians.

 I have  a story to tell here. One of my colleague, an Indian and a Professor in a reputed university  in the USA told me bitterly that he noticed how Indian stuents form bee-line to foreign, scientists/professors from abroad. I have noticed the same among my own students, in conferences.

We, who are often struggling here,  notice this. This does not help your cause. I shall never recommend such a person.

So, reach out. Try to change yourself — hard but possible.

(v) Do not think of short term gain. Do not use people. Recently I met an Indian colleague of mine in a foreign land. I know this person well and know also that he is quite political. He is very smooth, very polite, projects a good image, and usually let us know how well-known he is internationally. Well and good. Later talking with my German colleagues over dinner, I asked about this Indian colleague. They had nothing to say. After I pursued, they said “he has good publication”.  That’s it. No good words.

Another example of “things are not what they seem”.

But the opposite is also true. Many professors and scientists abroad are put on a high pedestal while we have many good scientists here too.

What I am attempting to put across to students and post docs that a limited, narrow, self-serving vision of profession, professors and of life in general, becomes self-defeating in the long run. These are the ones have difficulty in getting jobs — no body shall hire them.

I often tell the story of at least two job applicants (to SSCU) who proudly announced that Professor so and so (with whom he/she had then been doing post doc study) in  country X was the world’s best scientist in the course did not get job in SSCU and probably shall never get.  AVOID SUCH IMMATURITY. Study about the faculty of the department where U are a job applicant. It could be a good education for you.

So …. be aware of reality. Do not be offended when U are criticized.

(vi) Make as many contacts as possible back home and try to visit as many places as possible. Keep contacts. Keep pursuing.

(vii) Write mails to professors back at home. They might not answer but Indian Professors are almost sure to read a mail with a foreign email address.

(viii) The mails to Indian Professors should be short and simple. Do not over sell. We are tired by the aggressive mails. Just state that you are looking for a faculty position. State what is your expertise. This is important because the department might actually be looking for a person in that area. In India we are great admirer of “spreading it thin”. That is, HIRE ONLY ONE GUY IN A GIVEN AREA !

State that you have publications etc. Make the letter just 10 lines at most.

(ix) Final advice : Improve yourself continuously. You cannot have everything. Learning new things means you have to work hard which in turn means you have to sacrifice a few week-ends. Finally, remember that you are a foreigner and in a foreign land. This is always good to remember.

Many of my suggestions/advice are pretty obvious  but nevertheless worth remembering. There is no harm in repeating good things !

I wish you Good Luck !

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.                    13-05–2018

Bangalore.

 

 

Fact-finding science versus interrogative science

May 18, 2018

 

Both are okay of course — I am not putting one up and the  other down. However, it does tell us a lot about the science one is pursuing, even the nature of the science being done in a department, in an institute or a country.

I find this an important issue, particularly in the context of Indian science. Without much hesitation, I can say that majority of Indian science is in the fact-finding mode of research. And I shall argue below the merits and demerits of this approach.

Finding fact sometimes is not hard, especially in a newly emerged field. We have seen this in the high temperature superconductivity, nano materials, graphene, some areas of biology. Take our own work on protein hydration dynamics. This is still an emerging area. Here  one can use a package, simulate a protein soaked in water and study properties. Of course, these involve knowledge, expertise and understanding. I can see many students fail to do these fairly sophisticated job. But the mission is that of fact finding. This is certainly true also for a large number of work in nano science.

What are the examples of interrogative science ? I would imagine that when one follows a well-defined strategy or a well-formulated method to inquire the reason for an observed outcome, we can term that as an interrogative science. In interrogative science, one frequently spends a lot of time thinking about the question. An experimentalist would think of building a new equipment, a theoretician would attempt to develop a new theory or develop a new strategy. For example, the people who are in solar cell research, would need to think a lot about possible combinations of materials, dopants to increase the efficiency …..

Examples of fact finding research ? This is usually in the early stages of an emerging area, as I mentioned above. I have seen a lot of such research in the early days of superconductivity.

As I was writing this piece, a great example came to my mind — X-ray research. There are people who apply the established part of this technique  to find facts. Of course, it can be a part of bigger interrogative scheme (they often get inter-twined), but the part of  their research is fact-finding and is different from those who are spending time and effort to improve the technique. This is an area where both efforts are going on simultaneously — especially after synchroton facilities have given easy access to high intensity X-rays.

Thinking is involved in both the two approaches. Probably interrogative research is a bit slower than the other. We often find that in some groups, publication comes fast while in some groups students toil hard and get nothing in return.

As life in unfair, the students who publish gets rewarded — jobs, awards …….

Now let us look at a few successful groups, without naming them. By successful means, in the language and “wisdom” of modern days, highly publishing groups. Are they fact finding groups (in my nomenclature), or interrogative ?

Most of my examples point to the fact that highly publishing groups are usually fact-finding groups. The interrogative groups are slow to publish.

Of course my nomenclature and division falls flat in many cases. take a group that expertise in complete synthesis of complex molecules. They find enormous time in achieving even a part of their goal.

But then, in the modern scenario, how are we going to award them ? Or the interrogative research groups who publish less ? Will they survive ?

I am a bit confused these days. I grew up at a time when too much publishing was looked down up on.  During my PhD and post Docs (when we had several legends like Kadanoff, Leon Cooper, Bob Cole, Mulliken .. around us), talking of publication was sacrilege, an obscene act. Of course people had double standard , as always — getting a paper in PRL was considered great (Nature, Science were not on the horizon those days …). But people used to make fun of the guys who published too many.

Now “too many” is glorified. I do not hear people talk or discuss of the work or contribution, but the number !

I realize that one has to go with the wind — otherwise be left behind.But I do miss the old days when people were judged by their work and not by number of publications!

May the publishing God be on your side but I hope that quality-God be also worshiped.

Biman Bagchi, IISc.              18 May 2018

Bengaluru.

 

 

 

 

Understanding spoken English is hard : From a teacher to students

April 27, 2018

We take spoken English for granted and I  may sound trivial, even silly, but it is not — it is not only a serious problem for Indian students but also the problem is growing fast. This is a symptom of modern times. Of mobiles and SMS, and e-mails and What’s Up and What’s Not ……..

I am writing this Blog as a teacher to students. It is a subtle issue. Students think they understand, but often they do not. The communication is far easier in mother tongue. There could be layers and layers of misunderstanding in English.

I have been increasingly aware of this problem of late. First I had a secretary a few years back who could speak reasonably good English but would fail to understand many of the instructions or explanations.   After discussions with me the secretary would go and ask my students : “What did the Sir ask ?”

Later I found that our students also starting to have problems understanding discussions and instructions. Most Indian students adopt the age old strategy to keep quiet when they fail to understand a point. This is a strategy that has deep roots, in our schools and colleges where teachers often dislike students for asking questions. Also students usually not attentive in the class in schools — they are made to go to tuition any way where in exchange of high tuition fee, teachers explain details, and tutor them for exams.

So, ours is a culture of “not asking questions to teachers” has persisted and increasing. I tend to think that even students many times do not realize that they do not understand. I wrote a Blog on this once “How to understand understanding?” or something close to that.

There is an interesting story with this that you may find interesting. It is from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s “Kapalkundola” — the 2nd novel by the great novelist, the writer of “Bande Mataram” and Anando Math. When the saint (not the “Kapalik”) married off Kapalkundola to Mr. Nabakumar, he advised the daughetr that she would have to follow and do certain things in married life. Then Bankim Chandra added these classic lines “The saint thought he explained everything, and Kapalkundola thought she understood everything”, about married life. l

Later events showed that Kapakundola was completely unaware of the facts of married life as she grew up in forests away from society.

 Such lack of communication is not uncommon in academics these days. Many good students from upper echelon of society opt for Enginnering and Commerce streams, with boys and girls from villages and small town opting for science as the least expensive and competitive approach. But unfortunately, higher academics require many language skills — listening, reading and writing — that these students are not prepared for.

Also a life in memorization, that starts with Sanskrit slokas, and ends in memorization of Math equations make things worse. Students continue to copy even later days ….in research .. with disastrous consequences.

But who shall tell the students early that not only reading and writing but listening and understanding spoken English are essential life skills in Science.  Keeping quiet during a discussion does not help. I have couple of students who keep quiet and surely they shall face terrible problem.

But I realize that it is not easy to be communicative and good listeners in a culture that is dominated by elders, teachers where younger generation is often shouted down.

 But unfortunately, there is no alternative. Students must learn to understand well,

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.

Bangalore.