Why it is more important to have fun in doing research than just publishing papers ?(or, there is more to research than publishing papers !)

November 8, 2017

Now that the most, if not all, of the PhD students keep talking and worrying about publication number and impact factor, I think the rot has begun to set in. The students may be enjoying less and worrying more.

In discussions with students also, I see the anxiety to publish. The students are afraid about future. I recently asked a student whether he thinks that he can do outstanding work that can have an impact,  and whether he thinks about such projects. His straight forward answer was “No Sir, we do not have such dreams. We think a lot about jobs.”

I am trying to paraphrase the famous saying by PAM Dirac “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equation than to fit experimental data”. My apologies to experimentalists but theoreticians should not be slaves to experiments. The same otherwise.

The main thing is to have some fun ! And not get cowed down by pressure.

In his book “You must be joking Mr. Feynman”, Feynman said exactly the same thing. In the book chapter “Monster Brains” (I am quoting from memory — so it won’t be verbatim), Feynman told us how he became unproductive while at Princeton Advanced Research Institute where all the big guys were those days. He then figured out that part of the reason of his lack of progress or inactivity  was that he was stressed out, feeling too much pressure and not having fun. Things improved for him when he went back to his own non-care attitude. Of course he enjoyed a lot the science part (and of course showing off how smart he was).

Having fun is really important. But to have fun you need to learn new things, go to exciting seminars, mix with exciting people. These are easy at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley …. not so easy in India. Even in IISc., Bangalore we do not have a hell lot going. But still some things happen all the time but we often disconnect ourselves even from those.

As a Dean of Science I hardly have any time these days, so I have a valid excuse, at least I think so. But even before I was not very regular. It was not the same when I was a post doc and PhD student. The lethargy sets in with time, and certainly the less-than-stimulating atmosphere here played a role.  The rest was done in by the publication pressure. But I was good in one thing always, that is, I did follow the literature for a long time. That really helped. Also I had great great mentors who gave me the necessary injections or stimuli.

But for young students ? They must expose themselves to good ideas and concepts. Otherwise it can get so boring that you cease to enjoy your research.

Mind is a bit like a musical instrument — say like strings of a guitar. You need to keep it tuned.

PhD days can be stressful — very. But remember that you are here to learn — not just to publish papers. Sometimes “less is more”.

Learning must go on all the time. Note that PhD might appear to be long but 5 years go fast.

Wish you great learning experience !

Biman Bagchi, IISc.

http://www.bimanbagchi.com.

 

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Everything for only one thing ?

November 5, 2017

I just returned from a walk outside. Roads of Malleswaram after dark are fraught with danger. Not only your leg (meaning my old leg) can get broken by getting stuck in a hole or falling into a pit, you can also be chased into one by a many stray dogs. So, I was being extra-ordinary careful, with images of me lying in a hospital bed vividly in my imagination, so much so that my speed came down to about a mile an hour.

There are advantages of being slow.  People in front of me, mostly young guys who clearly had nothing to do on Saturday evening — no girl friend or the GF ditched them in favor of going to mall with another girl. The crowd did not appear to be particularly affluent but not poor either. They occupied the tea stalls, chat shops, and endlessly talking.

As I was moving slowly — you easily imagine the situation —  I could hear much of the discussions that were going on around me on the streets. It was amazing — all of them talking about money. The amount I heard was 3000, 1.8 Lakhs, 1 crore — only money and sites and business deals, jobs ……

I understand that these people need money and jobs — who doesn’t ! But on a nice Saturday evening at 7 PM only discussions going on was money ?

I was taken back to my days at Presidency at Calcutta. People would be surprised to know that those days Presidency used to boast of getting the best students. There were years when 8 or 9 of the top ten would join Presidency — mostly to pursue Physics but 1 or 2 in Chemistry too, We also spent a lot of time loitering around in the streets surrounding the famed College Street, we also now and then had Chai and samosa — we were definitely poorer because we could not afford most of the things we wanted to have.

But what did we talk about ? As far I remember now,  money was not the subject of choice  AT ALL. It was abhorred. We were more busy with Satyajit Ray. Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen. Then there was modern poets and writers — Shakti Chattopadhyay was always a big topic, followed by Sunil Gangopadhyay.. I remember that once we argued the whole evening about poet Jibanando Das and his poems … some put him even above Rabindranath which appeared ABSURD AND PAINFUL to me. But I still remember the logic of my friend .. Rabindranath was distant but Jibanando was close to him …. as if his neighbor with whom he could converse and shake hands.

Obviously we were stupid — very stupid. We should have talked about career,  money and important things. There was one similarity in thought. The young men who seemed to be going around equally aimlessly now at Malleswaram like us then in the College street  (we also had no girl friends — another similarity!). That probably would have changed the discussion. But may be these days they too more attracted towards money ? I do not know. Our times girls were also interested in literature and of course movies. Thank God there were no Malls.

I end today’s Blog with a story — I might have stated this once before — but these are privileges on being a bit old … you are expected to repeat.

Now the story. At Brown University, I often slept in my office, particularly in my 3rd and 4th year. Reason was that the newly established computer center had “Happy Hours” after 12 Midnight when we can also run big jobs (called category – S — even those days nerds used to state everything the opposite way).  So, I used to be busy till 2/3 AM which was often too late to go home. Also I had a very nice sofa which was quite okay. There was only one problem. By 7 am a janitor used to open the door to clean the room and used to wake me up. He was also a bit embarrassed. So he used to ask “Hey man, what is this ? you have no home, no wife, no girl friend ? Sleeping here every day ? Shit man !”.

It was so telling that even I felt bad. Till then I thought I was doing s glorious thing — working hard, doing science. But my janitor friend put me on spot.

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.

profbiman@gmail.com

Shall good writers all disappear in the era of What’s Up, SMS and Internet ? Can it happen, really ?

November 1, 2017

An honest, creative author is a gift of God to the mankind. Think of the hours and days of pleasures that we have received freely from Rabindranath, Shakespeare, Nikolai Gogol, Mark Twain, Sharatchandra, Dickens …. many others … in every language. I just wrote down the names that came to my mind this morning — in a lazy state of mind — trying to avoid looking at the Newspapers that describe the election fiasco in Gujrat, corruption in Delhi, rape in Gurgaon etc etc .  They are all very important news no doubt, but gets kind of stressful. Reading books by these authors present a much more pleasant prospect. Think of the beautiful stories we all read — the fairy tales and the rhymes …..

We thought that such writing was eternal. But there is now doubt about this longevity. A good writer finds its sustenance, its oxygen and water from good readers.

GOOD WRITING IS EXTREMELY HARD AND TAKES TIME. Sharatchandra made this lighthearted remark that whoever has two legs can run, but the same does not apply to writing — everybody has two hands but that does not ensure writing ! 

This thought often comes to my mind — how clever and crafty were these great authors ! There are many books written by many authors on the skill development of an author. But those books are largely useless — you hardly learn anything from them. Writing is very hard — one of the hardest job one can try. Only worthwhile thing I learned from the advise of the authors to aspiring  authors is that you need to write every day. the rest an author would need to pick up by himself or herself.  That is what make writing so damn hard.

Why does a person write ? To make a living ? For fame ? Both these two reasons have taken a beating in recent times because of the internet — the all pervasive fire that seems to consume  everything that we have accumulated for so long. Between computers and internet — not only anything that is old (human beings, literature, ..)  The situation is such that only the  internet people are making money — making it easier for every body to “get”  books free online instead of buying. Certainly there are good aspects of this — I now read many classics online — the easy accessibility is helpful. But for present-day authors, the situation is weird. I wrote two books — one with Oxford, one with Cambridge — I know many people have the books free from online “stores”. I do not feel too bad about it because money was not an issue here, but for  young authors who are struggling to make a living ?

May be we should be back to the old days when a king used to take care of poets and writers. But such help was for well established and famous writers — not for young ones.

Writers like Ernest Hemingway made living (and a good and exciting one ) by writing only.  In his life, adventure and writing went together! And adventure gave more material for his writing! But such a life was possible only because he could earn by writing.

Internet is re-writing all the rules. Just in science where quantity has replaced quality, the same dilution might be happening in literature. Equally affected are the book publishers — many publishing houses have folded. One does not often recognize that these publishing houses served many roles in the publishing chain, giving many helps to authors. Now authors are told : You are on your own. It is a dog’s world — survive by yourself !

Poets of course always starved. In our times, parents and teachers together would beat the budding poet to get poetry out of his system, to save the “poor soul” so that he can earn a living.

I would guess that Internet shall be hard on poets — life is getting too fast. So the dream of Plato to exclude poets from his Republic is going to be full-filled — not by force but by Internet, helped by What’s Up and SMS …

Biman Bagchi

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

Win by number or, by quality ? Is there a choice any more ?

October 23, 2017

[About twenty years ago, Professor P. Balaram, Editor of Current Science, wrote an entertaining  editorial entitled, “Citation index : a beauty contest of scientists ?”.  Although written in a light vein,  he did point out the essence of  the problem with citation analysis. Since then the “problem” has grown into a monster. Not only the number of citations, but also the number of publications, IMPACT FACTOR ANALYSIS — we seem to have lots our way into this wilderness.No longer is the quality of a scientist is judged by discussions and contributions.  We need to take a re-look. Hence this Blog] 

Modern science is increasingly presenting a paradox which is partly due to the enormous growth of science. When we were doing PhD, we are blessed by the fact that in our area,  Journal of Chemical Physics (JCP) and Physical Review were the only two journals we were expected to publish. No body around us was bothered by Nature and Science. I was thouroughly confused by the name JACS (it was 1978 !) — as there appeared to be two journals with “American Chemical Society” name — we never read a paper published in that journal. Among us physical chemists, it was a no-no journal. PRL was still  respected, but JCP was the best for us. Actually every body (Rudy Marcus, Ahmed Zewail and other NLs)around us published only in JCP — now and then one in JPC.

And a  Professor was content to publish 3-4 papers. Zwanzig proudly told me once that 1963 was a good year because he could publish 5 papers . Needless to say that those 5 papers, each was a diamond.

Even in 1990s — impact factor (which made its appearance around that time) of JCP and PRL were the same — 4.1 or so. I guess JACS was slightly higher but by not much.

In India at least number of papers and number of citation seem to rule the stage — one’s gate way to recognition. awards, job, promotion ….. The reason is the rapid growth of science, so much so that we have only one or two experts in a given area to judge others work. In the absence of the critical number, the matrix of evaluation relies on numbers and numbers and numbers ….

In our (distant past) time — our seniors used to talk in a different language (or, lingo — in modern English usage). We were told that Rudy Marcus developed theory of electron transfer, Flory introduced the concept of excluded volume in polymer chemistry,  Leo Kadanoff invented Operator Algebra and explained scaling hypothesis, Julian Gibbs developed a second order phase transition theory of glass transition etc. Both Kadanoff and Gibbs were at Brown, and Marcus visited us at Brown.

We did not know and did care even less about the number of papers they published. When Robert Zwanzig came to give the  Appleton Lecture at Brown, I was in 3rd year. But I was already in awe of the man who invented the projection operator technique, the thermodynamic perturbation theory, generalized hydrodynamics etc. etc. Later I found that Zwanzig published only about 90 papers all his life. He told me tersely once that of those only 70 were serious

That is a scientist used to be known by the work — not by number of papers or h-index.

It is clear that people who celebrate number of papers and h-index are seldom known by outstanding work. Even worse, they might not even care. That is the reason they trumpet their numbers. Sometimes I think that these guys are not even aware of the fact that numbers have only a temporary value. Good for them — “when ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise”.

However, science is pretty clear in this — only outstanding work remains — not the number of papers. Science advances by thought-induced work — not by paper-motivated work.

It is a pity that we have accepted the “Beauty Contest” with vital statistics.

But then the prevailing view, at least in India, and in some of our neighboring countries, is that “we do not care about science. Let us survive first. Then comes time for all those loft ideas”.

Recently I was traveling with a young PhD student. As our discussions touched many areas, I asked him, out of curiosity ” Do you think that one day you can make an important contribution, say a discovery ? Do you have such ambition?”. The students flat answer was “No Sir, not really.” “Why?”. “Sir, it is the surroundings. We think about job prospects, how to survive …. no time to think about great work any more…..”.

So, true ! The student was smart and honest.

So, we are living at such times where one can win by publishing lots of (mediocre), or papers in a “hot” field where it is easy to publish.papers !

Most measure the quality of the work by the journal they hit.

But when you have crossed a long path like some of us, you know well that at the end only good work remains. But as mentioned, one needs to survive.

There is a skewness in the system. of publication and citation that huts many students and researchers. It is probably true that publication comes fast and easy in an emerging area and citation also gallops.

I once had a fried who was working on general relativity. The poor guy was just searching for a good problem and was not finding one. I asked him “why don’t you work on my problems ? We have lots to do”. He tried for a few days, and then told me, “Biman, these are not interesting. Why do you work such trivial things ? Answers are either known or can be found easily.”

Actually, the case of superconductivity is quite interesting and should be analyzed in detail as such an excitement was created all over the world since the discovery of high Tc superconductor in 1986 ! I wonder what happened to zillions of papers that people published, endless number of newspaper declarations that were made ….. May be a good review has already summarized the advances that we are not aware of.

How can you  do good work when much of your time goes in writing papers writing papers (and add traveling to it!).

But for young generation, especially in India — the situation is tough. They do not have enough time or expertise probably, to do such outstanding work which can be regarded as breakthrough. And our system is not responsive enough to judge and protect the meritorious ones.

I do not have any answer, except I would advocate a mixing of approaches, especially for young faculty. Publish some but have an eye for a big problem. Be hopeful — things can happen real quick !

Good luck !

 

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

 

How to train your mind to excel in studies and in research : The silent force on your side to harness

October 8, 2017

[This Blog can be useful even to high school students, and certainly to college students and researchers. Please circulate to them.]

Not often realized or appreciated, our own mind plays an enormous role in our studies and also in research.  Fortunately, we can harness it for our own purpose, towards a higher goal. However, this force is not practiced enough!

It is pertinent to start with the saying of great Rishi Aurobindo (who was a deep thinker and founder of Pondicherry Ashram). Aurobindo said that for those who try to improve, there is a force to help beyond a point. This force will pull them above the mediocrity. I often think about this. What is the force that he talked about ? In the field of studies, there are only a few who pull ahead of others. It is not just brilliance and hard work (both needed to some extent) but also the dedication that is the one track mind.

Again, a story time.  Because I had to commute a long distance by train and bus for the 5 years for my BSc and MSc colleges, I was unhappy about the time I lost every day compared to my Calcutta friends many of whom would just spend 15 minutes to reach college from their home.. Finally I decided upon a strategy.  As there was no place to read in a train, even if I was lucky to get a seat to sit down, I started to recapitulate the subjects in my mind. Let me give you an example. Say I wanted to derive Bohr’s law. So, I would try to remember every step of the derivation. It also helped in the case of organic chemistry synthesis, and in the study of industrial chemistry.

This strategy really helped. later when I used to discuss with my friends, they would be surprised by my recollection of equations without a book or note book in front of me. So they went around telling that Biman was working so hard that he managed to memorize everything. I simply could not read much because at home my father would never allowed me to read beyond 11 PM at night and I was returning home mostly after 7 PM — tired. Morning was also out of question.

I tried to explain my technique but they did not quite believe except my friend Deb Shankar Ray who was then a super-bright young man.

Later I realized that studying for exam is like painting a wall — you need to paint your mind again and again so that the paint (here study material) gets a permanent coat. This is what helps in exams.

This mind empowering technique (MET) — as I prefer to call it — is nothing new, and the same age-old technique to remember some things. But for me I discovered out of necessity (to survive) and practiced diligently for long. It really helped. I scored highest in Organic Chemistry (Yes Sir ! got 77% in MSc Part I), in Inorganic Chemistry and similar in Physical. these were huge marks in Calcutta University in 1970s.

Any way, I cited the above numbers just to substantiate the utility of my MET. The trick is the repeated memory refresh without any book or notes.

Now back to Rishi Aurobindo. I believe that all his later life   in front of you. It can do wonders.aught us how to control your  mind.

I am not sure but the oral education technique practiced in ancient India probably was also a mind training exercise. It was not just memorization from a book or class notes because you are with other students in a group.

Swami Vivekananda was a great believer in the power of mind.

This is where internet and mobile phones (with endless messages and Whatsapp etc) are ruining our students’ mind. It interferes seriously with our mind, make it restless. If I had the power I would have forbid students mobile from 7 am to 8 pm.

A serious student should keep his/her mind free and dedicated to the subject or even research.

As Rabindrnath Tagore said in a memorable sentence in one his plays ” It is the mind where all worshiping is done — the temples are just the outside.” I know the text in Bengali which is not possible for me to translate — I feel utterly incompetent.

But the message is the same — place mind over matter if you want to do well in studies and research.

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

https://sciencetalk.wordpress.com

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Corruption : When, where and how does it start ? [BUT LET NOT BE SILENT]

October 2, 2017

[This has remained a cliche — used mostly by politicians who themselves often the most corrupt. But of late writers seem to avoid this. In good old days, writers wrote powerful plays and stories — often satirical. I am reminded of the great story by great Nikolai Gogol “The Government Inspector” — strongly recommended].

Today is October 2 — Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. Hence the blog.

As India consistently scored  and maintained a “flattering” near top position among the most corrupt nations, it is worth asking these questions. They also affect the way our science administration is run.

What leads to corruption ? How does it become so ingrained in a society ? When does it start ? Why every body tolerates it ? Is it because if you speak out you could be persecuted ? “Power corrupts people and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Fear of powerful people who can harm you ? All of the above ?

Let us do some introspection. Let us talk about and not laugh about it !

As charity begins at home, does corruption also begins at home ? Can a child from an honest family turns crooked and/or corrupt ? Some societies (even within India) are tend to be more corrupt. Internationally we find Dutch, Austrians, Germans are less corrupt (although there might be other aberrations).  Often the more free the society, the less corrupt it is  — the conservative societies are surprisingly most corrupt.

The fact that corruption in India is all pervading, from government to private offices, to science research and industry is so well-known that we regard it like the Sunlight and the blue sky — omnipresent.  We often do not realize that  much of our unhappiness and fear comes from this corruption as we cannot trust most things. God only knows how many train accidents are due to corruption. This days one is afraid to board a train, especially in the northern part of the country (no prejudice here, okay?). Hospitals have become hotbeds of corruption. There is no control.

A corrupt society cannot do anything great. Sure we can have isolated pockets of excellence, launch nice  satellites and won a few cricket matches, but let not fool ourselves. Germany, Japan, USA, Russia, France, China …. do not play Cricket.

But when  does corruption start ? And how ? Answer to “why” is probably not needed because corruption is driven by greed — of money and power. But questions regarding  how and when remain.

But can corruption be a habit ? Sometime I think so. It has become habit of many people.

Let me tell you some stories — these stories form a backdrop against which we can articulate the origin of the problems. I am sure most of you have the same stories.

My first direct exposure with corruption was at an express train when we were travelling in 1963 from Calcutta to Darjeeling (actually New Jalpaiguri station). We were travelling in a 2nd class sleeper compartment. Four of us had a open cubicle like area. There was a guy who however sat there (in our seat) as the train started. We were a bit annoyed. But the man said he would move soon. When the ticket checker came (we call them TT), our man went to TT, spoke a few things in low voice. The TT first shook his head and then seemed to agree. They moved a little bit away from us, but I kept a vigil on them. I saw some money exchanged hands, and later found the man happily sleeping on an upper birth. I asked my father who was reluctant to speak about the incident, but my elder brother who somehow seemed to know more than me told laughingly (with roll of hand that he was so fond of doing) that the man did not have a ticket and he just bribed the TT to travel in a reserved compartment without a ticket.

Okay — there it was. I  remembered the episode but it did not occur to me whether it was right or wrong. I was too young. Later I had seen the episode repeated many time.

The second memory when I was much older. We just built the 2nd floor (1st floor in British system of counting floors) of our house. One day two gentlemen showed up, and asked for my father. We were told that they were from the income tax department and wanted to know the source of income. My father could show the income as all four of us were earning. But the IT officers were not pleased. They told that they would return later. Surely they did with a new set of questions. My father was a bit annoyed and asked one person from the locality for help. This man contacted these two officers and told my father that they would not close the case unless we bribed them. That was the “custom” of IT officers — they would not or could not close an open file without taking bribe. That was against their professional “integrity”. My father would not give bribe. It went on like this for a while and then stopped.

These are of course all well-known things. But now I am going to tell you somethings a bit more disturbing.  When we stayed in our Presidency college student hostel, there was an eagerness from some students to be the mess-in-charge. I was surprised because I thought it was a thankless job ! But, no! I was told that whoever student took care of the expenses of the mess for a month, made about 700 rupees. It was a lot in 1971  when the mess bill was only Rs. 65 a month ! But no body really cared unless the fish was rotten or pieces were too small. I am told that the same thing still goes on.

At our time, copying in exams in West Bengal was quite accepted, giving and taking bribe were accepted, getting a job through personal connection was accepted, buying a movie or train ticket by paying extra were accepted — everything was on. And still  so.

There are of course corruption on a much bigger  scale that most of us do not even get to know — “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” (or, reported in our newspapers !). But such corruption often does not always destroy the fabric of our society. I was told that Japan could be corrupt at high places but Japanese are among the most honest people we have around us. Japan teaches us that it is the everyday small small corruption around us that is most damaging. And of course small corruptions build the foundation of big ones I just talked about.

Then we see parochialism and favoritism all around us, in hiring, for example. We find no shame in those. But when ever merit suffers, the society suffers. We have seen these enough in science. A senior colleague of mine (higher up in a major university) once told me that this is the same in many places except, perhaps, in the US.

Our children grow up seeing all these around them and are bound to accept his as a fact of life.  They see discrimination and favoritism every where. Later  they find awards can be

And our science ? We better not speak about it ! Awards and fellowships have become so political that one has lost faith on them.

And there is no shame in lobbying for an award, getting an award with little or no work but because of being in the good books or a sycophant  of  (or, helpful to) a powerful man — everything is on … there is a queer sense of entitlement.

Actually corruption of power may be more harmful than corruption of money because power can not only corrupt many people but damage the system with a long term effect !

And we do not protest. “If you protest, you are regarded as a freak” (I again improvised).

In old days we were told by our mother “Do not lie”, “Do not steal”. We received similar teachings ate school too (fortunately I went to a really good school — very lucky).

In the very last poem of Rabindranath, he suggested that only a pure mind can get the ultimate reward from the God — that is the right to eternal peace. I hope he was/is  true — he usually was.

Thus it is the mindset that we need to change!  There should not be a gene that modulates corruption.  We know that gene is selfish (Richard Dawkins) but corruption & selfishness  need not originate from gene.

Corruption has so many layers but we need to start teaching and discussing about it. Silence is the best friend of corruption and that is what power wants you to be. Be silent and do not protest. Do not talk — that is the first thing — corruption wants silence, just as dictatorship.

So talk ! DO NOT KEEP SILENCE !

 

Biman Bagchi

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

profbiman@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

The stampede at Mumbai on 29th September leading to death of 22 people

September 29, 2017

This is insane and unacceptable.  That  on a great festival day (Mahanavami) our commuters die like cattle. There is no basic safety feature any where.

I could relate to this people as I used to commute between Bally and Kolkata (either Howrah pr Sealdah). Although it was less crowded but it was still dangerous, especially in the rainy season. There used to be accidents even then. But situation has really gotten much worse in recent times. Other than a few cosmetic change, nothing great has happened.

What is the point of  having fancy cars, bullet trains and many fancy airports when we cannot safe-guard our own people. There is no safety on Indian road or train. Roads are all broken.

These commuters lead a very difficult life — I know because I lived such a life myself. You need to get up early,  get ready early, head for the station often one or two miles away. You climb the stairs, cross bridges. Sometimes in a hurry we used to jump down from the platform to a down below where tracks were placed. Run across and then climb up again to reach the opposite platform where a train was approaching. Not just me, many others used to do it. I did not see any accidents but there were scary moments.

The whole America mourns when only 10 (?) people die in a hurricane or tornado. And here we coolly observing deaths of commuters and train travelers day after day.

It is not conceivable that the situation cannot be improved within a short span of time. I think the major hindrance is the corruption, like the collapse of the flyover in Kolkata  (near Ballygunj ?) two years ago killing again about 20 people. It was found that this was due to the poor quality of material used in construction.

This reminded me of a story I heard from my father (who hardly ever told such stories — he was mostly a silent man except on Nietzsche or Schopenhauer or likes). Back to the story. When he became the Chairman of Bally-Belur municipality (which was quite a large area), he found, after a few days, there was a constant gathering of a few people outside his door – a few yards away. They did not approach him but would come and stand silently there. After a few days, my father asked his secretary ” What are these people standing there for ? Do they want anything  in particular?”. The secretary happened to be an ex-student of my father. He smiled and told that they wanted to meet my father but were embarrassed and afraid. My father asked “why?”. The secretary again snailed and said “They want to know what shall be your cut in the transactions”. My father was surprised , he did not understand what the word “cut” meant — he was a well-known teacher of English but this particular use of “cut” eluded his understanding. The secretary then explained “Sir, the previous chairmen used to charge 3-5 % of the total cost of making roads, bridges, drains etc, . for approving and signing bills “. My father was livid. He thought for a while, and then told the secretary to get the whole bunch into his office.  Among them, some were his ex-students who did not even look up — kept staring at the floor. My father (I am now “cutting” the story short!) that there will be no “cut” for any body in the Bally-Howrah municipality — no body should give bribe. If caught even giving or attempting to give bribe, would lose contract immediately.

There was a collective sigh of relief — my father was a hugely respected and loved individual in the locality. The contractors came forward, touched his feet (as was the custom of showing reverence) and told “Sir, we are most relieved. Sir, we lost nearly 20% of our cost to bribes. and we needed to “cut” corner in making roads and bridges. Now we shall make roads which shall last for a long time”.

That indeed happened. The roads built during my father’s tenure were the best roads built in the Bally-Belur locality in a long time.

I told this story to illustrate how bad/unsafe  roads and bridges are made due to unholy nexus between politicians and business people. Both sides are to blame but we innocent travelers pay with our life ! We need to stop this. Contractors any way make enough money — they do not need to make more money so that their children can drive Mercedes and BMW instead of Toyota.

I think we need a collective movement to stop these. I endorse strongly some of the movements our Prime Minister have initiated but he would need our support and involvement. Otherwise this shall go on. Also, something like a Citizen’s committee can do wonders in checking corruption. Use of internet can also help.

Note that this is not politics but our life and our society and basic value system that are crumbling.

 

Biman Bagchi

http://www.bimanbagchi.,com

profbiman@gmail.com

 

What a professor/thesis adviser/department can do with a student lagging behind?

September 26, 2017

What a professor/thesis adviser/department can do when faced with a difficult student, or a student having difficulty ?

This is not a pleasant topic to discuss, and that’s why not discussed often enough, despite its importance. But this is rapidly becoming a big problem in Indian higher academia. I see that often the fault lies with all three : a department that allows the problem to go far without timely intervention, a guide who is often indifferent or even cruel, and lastly the student who out of fear and shyness does not seek out help at the appropriate time.

I once received a mail from a Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Harbor. It was in reply to  a letter of recommendation that I wrote for a student from SSCU (IISc.) — the student was applying for a post doc position in the said professor’s group. The letter from the professor was a bit unusual and that is why I remember it even today. The professor of the US university pointedly asked about the mental state of the student and his/her ability to work with others in a positive way. He further stated that he once had an Indian student who essentially destroyed his group of many years.

I did write back allaying his fear but I was sorry. What could have happened that a senior  professor from a foreign land writes such a bitter mail about a student of ours after many years ?

Students often do not realize that they can have a devastating effect on a group or even on a department.

Of course the same goes for a faculty.

All of us eventually is handed down a student (or, a faculty colleague) who is almost impossible. The student may not only lack competence but also  lazy. The situations gets further complicated when the student fails to understand his/her limitations. The most damaging condition arises when the student does not even know how to communicate or even aware of the reason for communication.

Such a student cannot even reach out for help that is usually there. This often is the case of suicide or attempted suicide. A tragedy that can be avoided in most cases, IF THERE IS COMMUNICATION. One needs to talk/interact with such students. It is a societal responsibility. I often find that girl students communicate better but then they also suffer. or made to suffer,  the most

How to tackle such a student or situation  so that  both the student and the system survive ?

The situation is desperate in India because once you admit a student it is sort of (not fully) a thesis adviser’s responsibility to see that the student gets a PhD. This is ridiculous because it is after all a student’s degree. It is not that students have it easy, but that the thesis advisers have it bad. Often it is the student’s career and life that are in stake, but sometimes even thesis adviser’s life could also be at stake, or so would seems.  Students should be made responsible but it is a long process that should start in the very beginning.

What is often not realized by the new PhD students (and also young faculty) that doing scientific research has become quite difficult.  We were told that to be successful in science research , one needs three “P” —  Passion, Practice and Patient. The passion is easy, given by parents or the society. This is why so many Bengali students opt for science research. The second “P” — practice is harder. This means hard work. The last “P” is the most difficult one — it means you need to hang on, keep trying again and again — bear failures but do not quit.

In the current circumstances , a number of students come, no longer lured by the glamour of science (other fields are far more glamorous)  but may be by the good Fellowship for 5 years, or just because “my friends doing it” attitude.  But when students enters the research stream without adequate mental preparation, the problems become acute.

But what is the best and kind way to deal with such students who are surely not going to make it ? Worse still, these students might not even be aware of the situation or fails to gauge the condition.

In such cases the departmental curriculum committee (DCC) can play an important role. It is better that such students leave early. The thesis adviser is always responsible — not just here but every where, where they see it that way or not.

I find that a major problem is the lack of dynamism in the system. Students are allowed to take 6-7-8 years to finish a PhD. This is detrimental to the whole system.

After all PhD these days is only a training ground.. Students should not be kept for long.

If a new student knows that he has to leave  within 4-5 years, he/she is less likely to laze around. The same goes for the adviser and the department.

I find that girl students are particularly vulnerable. This needs to be tackled urgently. I have articulated some measures above, such as efficient and impartial functioning of the DCC of the department.

 

Biman Bagchi

profbiman@gmail.com

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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