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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

View from inside can be different from view from outside

April 24, 2018

This I realized in various stages of my life. I went to the Brown University without knowing what was an Ivy League, without knowing the National Anthem of the USA and had a mighty confusion about regions — the latter persisted for a long time. For example, I thought Harvard was at Texas, and Washington DC was in North-West — the latter can probably be excused.  My confusion continued even later in life. My idea of Notredame Cathedral was formed by Victor Hugo’s famous novel. So, it took me a long time to detach the famous Cathedral at Paris from the Notredame University.

However, Brown in late 1970s was a delight. I did not expect anything like this. Actually I had no expectation.

But slowly and slowly I begun to understand a few things. For example, when I taught at various US Universities, I realized that how much goes into managing and packaging a university. How much effort goes into projecting a highly polished and civilized face to the world, how much effort goes into monitoring and mentoring a young faculty, even the PhD students. The inside view is different. It is highly disciplined, vigorous, continuously monitored, and improved. Every thing is planned well ahead of time, every resources being used. In the latter stages when ever I visited these universities I was always given some PRO jobs — like inviting scientists, taking care of them — usually the younger faculty or so. It was not particularly pleasant but I could not say No to these. Another thing I was told repeatedly to do was to make a list of best colleges and universities of India.

The easy-going atmosphere projected and seen from outside is quite different when we see them from inside. There is so much to learn when you combine the two.

In  major US Universities, any interesting work by a professor of the university is displayed all over the place, and probably there is politics, but there is also judgement and certain degree of impartiality. In India, often we see efforts of individual professors to advertise their work, which is well and good, but little from the University administration. This should actually start at the level of departments. The departmental chairs should do this. Most often, they just do not care, or insecure.

If you do not appreciate others, you shall not get collaboration and unity. Our Academicians should read Dale Carnegie.

Thus, I see that we in India do nothing … well. almost nothing.  We hardly advertise our good work. in our web sites, these days we do provide some information but I find that they cater to known faculty. There is a control here of course. may be from the very top, like most things in India, with a lack of independence. That is, the “outside view” is poorly managed. Even the work reported are the ones on fashionable areas, and not the original ones.

How about the inside of our Universities or Institutions ?

As I already mentioned — people do not seem to be having fun. They are probably too busy thinking about awards and promotions. These days an academic job comes with good salary — about 50-60 times more than what we got 30 years ago. We walked, we starved, we struggled. These days my younger colleagues travel in new fancy cars, constantly travel abroad (I could not attend major conferences because I hated to beg or raise travel money ) — the 1st two years I just stayed in Bangalore. But I think we laughed more — not bothered about awards or promotions — we were less busy. We certainly knew less about the world. I actually felt being pushed when nominated for awards. Things have changed. I now do think that awards are important but they should not consume you.

We have begun to collaborate a lot more these days. It was a strictly No-No in our time — I heard a formula of credit sharing used by committees. Say A and B worked together and published a great paper. Now when evaluating A, 70-80% credit shall be given to B. The reverse happens in the valuation of B. In the process 50% of the credit just disappears into thin air. I was told this as a warning : Do not collaborate.

Actually collaboration is so much fun. We are all social human beings. It is fun to discuss and work together. Of course you shall lose some credit here and there and have personal difficulties now and then and this should not deter young people from pursuing collaboration.

I can go on telling stories but let me stop here today. As my blogs are for young people, I hope they continue to have fun. Keep the serious aspects in mind. Private and public faces need careful consideration.

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.

Bangalore

 

 

 

 

Why it is so difficult to be funny ?

April 13, 2018

It is easy to be difficult but difficult to be funny.

We all love funny people. Whether it is “Mr. DoLittle” of “My Fair Lady” Uncle Jack of “Sound of Music”,  Anupam Kher in innumerable Hindi movies — the comedians make our day.

But it is very difficult to create a comical enchanter. It is such a good feeling to make others laugh. We often do that unknowingly, BUT KNOWINGLY …? That is why creating humor is so difficult.

About 10 days ago I was at Ujjain (MP) visiting the famous MahaKaleswar temple, often mentioned by Rabindranath in his poems. Kalidas mentioned Ujjaini and Sipra river in a flattering way in his majestic long poem “Meghadutam”. My motivation to go to Ujjaini originated from these two poets. I was somewhat disconcerted, and I found myself standing in a long queue leading to the small room down stairs where the Great Jyotilingo (the 3rd oldest among the 12) was housed. It was quite crowded, it was hot as it was about 3 PM. To reduce the boredom, I started talking with a few young men around me … in my “chaste, Bengali” Hindi.  After a while, I found people were looking at me with smiling face. Then one young man (who was accompanied by his young wife) told me in a friendly affable way :” Sir, your Hindi is very nice, we are all enjoying it. You reminded us of Bengali characters in Hindi movies. They all speak Hindi like you.”. As soon as he said, there was more laughter of agreement and certain merriment. I did not feel bad at all, actually a bit proud that I could lighten the boredom. I proudly told them of Anand, Golmal and a few others that I remembered. They all of course have seen them — it was the Hindi heartland in Madhya Pradesh. They all became quite friendly with me , and  the long wait was a bit easier. And they continued to enjoy my “Hindi” .. now even more confident !

A comedian cannot be self-conscious,  he cannot be artificial, the act must appear spontaneous and effortless. Even playing a good joke is an art — only some can do it — most of us just enjoy but cannot execute. It is a great skill … as you notice this in great speakers…..

I now come (finally) to my main reason for writing this Blog. I find Indian science academicians are far too serious, with endless discussions about awards, grants, positions etc etc. They sometimes tend to get upset with my jokes …. I have become careful now.

There are of course some amongst us who entertain by singing, who can sing. These people are in great demand. I often hear old Hindi sons sang by 60+ aged people. They are all loved. But I often find them too wet.

The famous TV shows like M*A*S*H and The Benny Hill were lots of fun. In India comedy shows are relatively new but I find them not up to the mark. The dry humor is missing …. things are often crude. We need to learn to laugh at ourselves.

May be we are too self-conscious to enjoy a good laugh. We take offense too easily.

I remember that when I was doing Post Doc at the James Franck Institute at the Univ of Chicago, we had a good group of friends who were full of humor — Sherwin Singer, Charlie Cerjan, Mike Lipkin, Tony Haymet — they are all famous people now.  We ere all laughing almost all the time …. and we did really good work .. I published 18 papers in 2 years 7 months some of them went on to become really famous … BFO, BOF, BCR etc etc. Even professors like Graham Fleming, Stuart Rice, David Oxtoby, Steve Berry, Don Levy …. all having fun.

Feynman repeatedly told us to have fun while doing research.

I have a a rather disconcerting feeling that ability to laugh and make others laugh and to enjoy you need high level of intelligence. In some profession this comes easy but not-so-easy in some other discipline and profession.

But my own experience has been that unless you enjoy and continue to laugh, you do not have good chance of success in science. Do not be too serious …. UNLESS OF COURSE WHEN CALLED FOR.

I WISH ALL THE STUDENTS GOOD LUCK ! KEEP LAUGHING ! YOUR CHANCE OF DOING GOOD WORK SHALL INCREASE !

BIMAN BAGCHI, IISc.,                              Bengaluru (14/04/2018)

 

How was our life without mobiles and cell phones ?

March 24, 2018

Did we ever live without mobile and internet ? How was our life then ?  Dull and uninteresting ? Does any body remember those prehistoric days ?

When I travel in Bengaluru Metro, as happens fairly regularly these days, the predominant scene is young boys and girls (and not-so-young boys and non-so-young women) constantly on their cell phones. They talk while standing, sitting, crossing the road .. The first thing almost every body does when they find a sit is to get his/her mobile out either to start a call, or flip through pictures or What’s Up messages. All these seem very urgent, as if they would miss something if they wait for 5 minutes or so ….. the interest and absorption are impressive (I am not being sarcastic!).

Mobile phones of various shape and size have become so much of our life now that we lost the memory of the time when we did not have a mobile. What did we do ?

I was once  fortunate to travel regularly (for a short while) in Paris Metro, and also in the metro line of Nagoya, Japan.  In both the places, there were young people who were on mobile, but a greater number was found reading books, journals and newspapers.

I  had a nice experience in Paris metro that I must chronicle. I found a co-passenger (male, white, about 40 years old, medium height, formally dressed) reading a paper sitting next to me. He was quite absorbed. By glancing over, I found that he was reading a paper on protein folding. I was curious. Further “detective work” (meaning that I managed to read without his noticing) that it was a paper on protein folding that I knew. I was impressed. But more was in store for me. The same day I myself was giving a talk on protein folding at ENS (Paris). Lo and behold ! The same man showed up for my talk, this time holding our paper on “Levinthal Paradox”. As I was introduced to him before the talk (he was a professor at another of those innumerable places of Paris), he looked a bit perplexed. I could guess he was trying to remember where did he see me before. I did not help him — left him brooding.

I am yet to meet a man (or, a woman) reading on protein folding in Bengaluru metro.

Please do not get me wrong — I am extremely impressed by the tremendous advances in mobiles and cell phones. This is just mind boggling. We now get almost everyday a selfie (posted in Facebook) from Professor Dick Zare.  How would we otherwise get to know all about his talks, whereabouts, not to talk about his sumptuous dinner meals at Indian, Thai, Chinese  ….. every cuisine ! Then there are young people getting married, getting awards, traveling … everything is available.

I am all for these great advances, although I am neither an expert in Selfies, nor do I know how to post them. Prof. Zare is good at every thing !

But I do miss the old post cards — the sudden  delight of receiving a real mail (sarcastically called snail mail these days) , the colourful foreign envelopes with equally colorful postage stamps.

The days of stamp collection has disappeared for ever !

Biman Bagchi, IISc.,                      24-03-2018

profbiman@gmail.com

 

Story : At an intersection with the US President and an Indian State Minister

March 16, 2018

This is a great story — although these days no body reads stories unless you are old. Young people have no time for stories. Even 20 years ago we thought Saratchandra, Chekhov, Maupassant, Premchand, O Henry …..  were immortal. The poor guys lost to mobiles and internet! But one must accept the inevitable.

As in Coleridge’s old sailor — the Ancient Mariner — I  must tell my story……

The last part of my story  had its origin  yesterday when I was coming to my office by road. I observed that one side of the two-way road was completely empty — it looked bizarre — it was a very busy time at 10 AM — that road going towards Peenya was always busy. My side of the one way road was okay, a bit slow. It took no Sherlock Holmes to conclude (elementary) that the road had been blocked for the smooth passage of a minister. So, I asked my driver : “Is the Chief Minister or Modi-ji coming this way ?”

The driver replied “No Sir : it is a minister of ….. some minister in the state government”.

For a while I watched the familiar scene . A few  dozens of police officers and police men were keeping a sea of cars, buses, two wheelers  completely stranded, held at bay for the important event — the passing of the minister and his entourage.

And indeed they appeared after a while, and I counted — an envoy of at least twenty (20) cars !  An amazing scene  — what glory — of course at our expenses — the stranded passengers and our tax money. Where ever the minister was going, he was being accompanied by 20 cars ! It was nonetheless quite impressive.

Everybody heaved a sigh of relief, and the vehicles were allowed to begin their halted journey. Never mind the two mile long jam that followed and lasted for at least half-an-hour.

I am not too much of a photographer but I guessed that all of us had seen such spectacles where we were made to wait in a terrible traffic jam so that our “beloved”ministers could have a free and smooth journey to his/her important job/vacation.

Suddenly a vision from the past came to my mind — like in a flash. It was from way way past but I still remember it vividly. It was amazing.

I was living in Rockville then, a suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. I was working at NIH for a year. It was a Sunday morning , around 11 AM. I was going to my Lab at NIH for some work, may be to pick up something. I was driving my old, battered Honda Accord — a smallish car those days but was great on road.

Now I should carefully describe the roads to give you the proper picture. We lived in an apartment complex which was connected to the main roads by a road which was hardly used by any body except by us, the apartment dwellers. This road in turn, after crossing another not-so-small road, met Geroge Washington Pkway (GWP). GWP runs parallel to the Rockville Pike that like GWP connected Rockville and Bethesda with Washington DC.  That is, both the roads lead to Washington DC. Rockville Pike was the big road that most people used. GWP was less used because it was a bit round about.

On that eventful Sunday at 11 AM, I found myself at the junction of our smallish apartment-road, and the road that I needed to cross to get into George Washington Pkway (GWP).  Now the rule was that when you were at the crossing, and the first car there, you let the first car on the left on crossing go and then came your turn. One-by-one.

As I arrived at the crossing or intersection, there was a big black car that took left turn into GWP and then I thought was my turn, and I started. Then I heard one of the most bizarre honks that I had had heard in my life. It was  long, not much loud but grim and distinctive. I kind of woke up from my lazy driving, and looked carefully and found that the fleet on the left consisted of six identical  black Buicks. They took left turn one after another, no car was allowed to intrude between them. They all got into GWP and drove away. I just stood in the same spot in awe.

After they were gone a distance, I started. I was going to take the same road. I of course realized that the President of the USA was travelling in front of me, and was  using the less crowded road, and silently. More interestingly, the convoy of six cars stopped at every signal, as I watched from  a safe distance back. I knew from the Sunday Newspaper in the morning that he was to visit a Church in Rockville.

But there was no  traffic police any where. The convoy stopped at every traffic signal.

You may argue that it was a Sunday, not much crowded, but you cannot wish away the stopping at traffic signals and absence of any police on the road. The only thing they observed was that the six Buicks were together.

A few years ago I heard that British Prime Minister cancelled all his engagements in the subsequent days (in an Indian city) when he read in the newspapers the traffic jam his visit and convoy  had caused. All the meetings and conferences were organized in his Hotel. This was British gentle-manliness

But I fully believe the popular English saying “You get what you deserve”. We fully deserve the ministers who keep us waiting, including the ambulances, on the road for the smooth passage of even a state minister — of course Hon’able —  they are Hon’able men ! We do not feel humiliated, we do not feel angry — we accept all these as fully natural.

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.           16-03-2018

http://www.bimanbagchi.com

 

 

 

Why learning new things is often a painful process ? And how to navigate the difficulty ?

March 10, 2018

It is really a pertinent issue for people of my age group who are forced to learn new things every day — for us the world of technology is evolving fast and it is hard to keep up with them. We learned  internet, mobile, e-mails, now on line banking etc etc  at ages around 40.

The “sad” truth is that we must continue to learn, till we die ! The healthy way to take it as a challenge — a lifelong challenge!

One of my illustrated colleague was famous for not being able to read and write e-mails even 5-7 years ago. We all admired him. But now he has also fallen in line. It is sometimes fun to see him type — with one finger at a time. He is a very smart theoretician who thought that he could get by with paper and pencil. He is usually not in good mood when he writes his e-mails !

Why learning is a difficult process ?  Certainly a part of it is mental, like in my illustrated friend’s case.  I have also seen the opposite. Bob Zwanzig became extremely pleased when Mathematica first appeared. He mastered the tool rather easily and told me it was God-sent because he could now do simulations of his toy models. His later papers had signatures of Mathematica.

But Bob was a genius — he was always learning new techniques. He wrote a few short (very short) articles about the need to write new tools and techniques. I found his recommendations quite useful in my own research. The techniques and concepts I learned at a later stage of life has opened up new areas of research for me. I got into biology when I was almost at 40 years of age.

In Bengali there is a popular saying ” No body learns to walk without rough falls”. In another popular short poem, the poet exhorts the traveler not to lose heart seeing a long road ahead. The poet goes on to say you should be ready for the pain you might suffer from thorns when plucking a rose but such efforts are always worthwhile.

No pain no gain  ?

This (finally) brings be to the central theme of  by blog . Why is learning new things so difficult at older age ? It is probably difficult even when young but we are less concerned about suffering of the young — they are presumably supposed to suffer !

We discuss in terms of comfort zone. This immediately suggests that you need to be insecure (or, made insecure) to learn  This is not satisfactory, at least for scientists.

 I note that situation has become worse with various social media that gives an illusion of knowledge and success that are devoid of reality.

But why is learning new things so difficult ? THE REASON IS THAT LEARNING NEW THINGS CAN HAPPEN ONLY IF YOUR BASE  (FOUNDATION) OR EARLIER LEARNING IS SOLID.  If your earlier learning has big holes, you are sunk.

This is why high school and undergraduate education are so crucial for future learning.

It is always painful to go back and try to learn a thing you mastered only imperfectly in your young days. Sometimes it is just impossible.

On the other hand, it is an exhilarating experience to learn a new subject by establishing contacts among your known, often favorite, old ideas and knowledge.

Then there is the case of learning completely new things, like online banking. This is stressful because of the fear of making mistakes, the new territory.  If the fear is taking away, the only difficult part is the patience — the ability to persist. Patience plays a big role in learning new subjects.

There are some social cultures that encourage lifelong learning. But not all. Old societies usually do not encourage new thoughts. This could be a problem. I know some of my students are just incapable of learning new things beyond a point. They just saturate.

 But to be a successful scientist you need to learn all your life But only a few can do that.  I noticed the guys who talk a lot or try to impress are the ones who have “know it all” attitude and they fail miserably in the long run, even when they think they are successful.

Such is the mystery and wonder of nature !

In learning new things, humility helps — an inner humility — may be that is what religion is all about at the deepest level !

 

Biman Bagchi, IISc.                                                10 March 2018,

Bengaluru.

 

Not just “what and when”, a student needs to ask “why and how” ?

March 1, 2018

[This  blog is deliberately provocative]

In the famous  poem ” The Charge of the Light Brigade”, poet  Lord Tennyson wrote these enduring lines

“Theirs not to make reply,

   Theirs not to reason why,

   Theirs but to do and die.

   Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.”

When I was a PhD student myself, I often remembered these lines . I even changed it a bit to suit me : “yours not to question why, yours but to do OR die”. Note the difference.

In Indian academic set up, especially in schools and colleges, students are given immense credit for knowing “what”s and “when”s, but not for “why” and “how”. Just follow the rules, do not ask questions. I was thrashed many times for asking questions (and of course for being naughty).

Examples of memory based question in Exams :  What is the capital of Germany ?  When was Shivaji born ? What war Alexander fought with king Puru ? Who was father of King Akbar ? ……………………

Consider these questions along with memorization of slokas and poems. Students are taught even to memorize equations. When I was growing up, a common practice was to divide a question paper into “known” and “unknown”. The “known” usually means one can answer from memory while “unknown” was the fearsome part when one had to reason.

Given that an examination is always biased towards those who can memorize, it is tilted again the thinking type.

Einstein said “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.”

Our professors and researchers also fit into this mould. I know many of my colleagues do not encourage students to think. I was once apaalled to know that one of my colleagues have told his/her student “You need not think. I shall do all the thinking. You just do what I say.

This is scary.

Our whole system is biased against thinking. The saving grace is that young mind is naturally imaginative and creative. And inquisitive.

Rabindranath spoke out again and again the established tradition. Not only in essays and poems but also through two powerful drama, namely “The training of Parrot”and “Raktakarabi”. In both the stories/drama, Rabindranath portrayed the futility of strict discipline and suppression of spontaneous thinking.

Students must train themselves  to ask “why”and “how”.  Otherwise they miss out the main fun of doing research.

Biman Bagchi, IISc                                                1 March 2018

http://www.bimanbagchi.com                                        Bangalore.

For Students : How NOT to Self-destroy but Improve

February 18, 2018

I find many good students self-destroy themselves — most often by not following certain simple self-preservation strategy. I have also seen many not-so-good students improve tremendously over the 4-5 years they usually take in most groups to finish PhD.  Similar things have been observed by my colleagues. This seems like a natural phenomenon : Some students improve and develop tremendously while many do not. Some actually go down with time. And the fraction of such students is not small. They were quite good to begin with but then not only stayed static but even deteriorated.

This could be vaguely attributed to a failure of our system. Students are supposed to improve, especially during PhD.  This is particularly true for Indian PhD students because we do not get a good undergraduate education. So PhD training plays a big role.

But why then so many students fail to improve ?

System is certainly to be blamed in many cases.  We fail to guide in the true sense of the word. A department and the adviser need to be nice to the students but be correct to them. I always tell : Be aware of your sweet-toothed adviser or professor.

Most of you shall remember the teaching of Drona of Mahabharata. Drona was a great teacher. But he was also strict and often harsh. You may also remember that he did not even allow Bhima and others to release the arrow from the bow as they saw others things than the eye of the bird they were supposed to shoot at. Only Arjuna answered that his only focus remained on the eye of the bird suspended from the three while rest of the world became empty to him.

However, such good teachers are rare any where in the world, and although, they should be the most valuable persons of our society, we spend time and money on cricketers and programme writers. But we need to do whatever left to us.

The following are the steps to self-improvement as I have written (partly) once before.

(i) First, learn to have fun during the 5 years or so. This will  help you keep yourself engaged. Friends are the best source of fun. Also need to focus on your own pleasures , be they music, movies, story books.

(ii) Learn how to tackle failure and rejection. This is now more important than many other factors. In certain sense, this is like facing a prolonged  bad weather, long, dark, cold winter in Denmark.  In research also, you need to train yourself to be weather tough.

There shall be difficulties. Failures. Rejection. Hardship. But never give up. My friend Professor Yoshi Oono (an extra-ordinarily smart man) always told me : “Biman, U need 3 Ps to do science — Passion, Practice and Patience. And the last “P” is the most important one.”. I found this true in my own life.

(iii) Form a group of friends with like-minded students. This is very important. Must do self-study — better done in a group. I find most groups these days study their own papers or just report work in group meetings. You should spend time reading important papers in your area of research. You shall find such an efforts opens up many avenues in your mind and work,

(iv)  Time is short, and getting shorter — to much to learn and do. So, stay away from mobiles and internet unless you use them for good purpose. These gadgets take away enormous time. I see young people spending enormous time on mobile and internet. Know that these are sheer water of time.

One of my famous colleague made the rule that he would not look into e-mails or news before 1 PM. he told me that this helped him enormously.

Tell your friends not to call before 4 PM.

(v) Be relentless in pursuit of result and excellence. Never lose faith, even when U are failing. Many GOOD students easily have self-doubt. It seems to me our good students are a bit more fragile, easy  prey to the attack of self-doubt.

(vi) Learn to communicate your fear and worries — with others, friends, adviser. Solution  comes out of discussions. You can also get back your faith.

(viii) Read, Read and Read !  I cannot over-emphasize the importance of reading. The single most important activity to keep you healthy (academically). 

(ix) Practice writing. Not being able to write correctly is a terrible handicap. Write in short simple sentences. My favorite is the little book by Strunk and White.

Remember that there is enough room at the top for many of us. So, do not lose faith.

Biman Bagchi

http://www.bimanbagchi.com