“It is good to be busy” but you need to try to stay busy

June 24, 2017

The great Chinese proverb :  It is good to be busy”. I heard ifrom a Chinese friend of mine — my room mate from a long time ago. He was a brilliant physicist working on general relativity. The poor guy searched and searched, could not find any problem to work on. As his standard was high, he could not find a worthwhile problem to do. He gradually became morose. I was trying to console him, even tried to get him interested in my problems of relaxation dynamics, but that did not appeal to him. In the course of conversation about these, he one day told me “Biman, it is good that you are so busy. I also want to be busy. We say, “it is good to be busy” “. When I asked him to explain he told me that it was a famous Chinese proverb.

 And he added “You need to try to be busy”.

 That is, you need to look for work, if there is no work coming on your way.

That was interesting for me because in our Brahminical culture, I heard from my childhood that since there was no end to work, there was really no point of working. Thinking, meditation and preaching (like Secretariat way) was glorified. Hard work was looked down up on. I  guess some of this outlook remains in India even today. But the room for “Socretes” getting smaller and smaller.

Of course the disappearance of “Socretes” is also not desirable. I am afraid if “business” gets hold of every body, then poetry, music, painting … might go out of the window. [Saul Bellow in “Dean’s December”].

Anyway, as this blog is mainly for young students — what I want to tell them is that when you find yourself in a zone where you are not fully occupied, you need to  search and find your own problems.

It is essential that you keep yourself busy. It is an effort that we must undertake.

My favorite advice to experimental students to try their hands on computer simulations, to learn packages such as Gaussian, Gromacs, MatLab etc. etc.

For theoreticians, my advice would be  learn higher Math and also as many theory  tools as you can muster. It would be great if you could spend some time in an experimental Lab.

Invest your free time to learn new techniques and methods.

Also when attend seminars, make it a point to stay engaged and ask questions.

It is said “Nature abhors a vacuum”  [Aristotle] . But I see these students love to create a vacuum and fill it with mobile, internet ….

So while Aristotle stands vindicated, this is not a good policy by students.


Biman Bagchi



Knowledge versus Skill : An eternal debate

June 22, 2017


Which one is more important — knowledge or skill ? On the surface, skill and knowledge are complementary to each other. But some times we need to differentiate between the two — especially during the training of students.

Which is more important to present day students ? Skill or knowledge ? By skill I mean the ability to do something concrete without any help while knowledge implies more academic information.

To be useful to the society, we need skill. We need good pilots, good computer programmers, good doctors and engineers ….This has been true for ever.  Our interaction with nature gives rise to skill, actually demands skill. The end product is  also knowledge.

As society gets more and more sophisticated, we need more and more skillful people. Does that mean that the space for knowledge decreases continuously ? Or, does skill absorbs knowledge as part of the whole ? There is room for some interesting thought here (what we refer to as thought provoking idea).

This is a question that is worth pondering. In some sense, the answer to this question or even understanding of the issues have the potential of dictating the curriculum of schools and colleges.

If we think naively, it seems that knowledge should take precedence. We do need knowledge to start on anything. But that is not how a human child starts learning in life! He (here I mean both boys and girls) seems to acquire both simultaneously  when he starts walking. Both knowledge and skill are picked up by interaction. The acquired knowledge tells him  what is within the domain of possibility while skill allows him to do the possible.

The two however gets separated at a later stage when knowledge begins to involve principles and concepts such as Newton’s laws, laws of thermodynamics, electromagnetic theory . In certain sense, knowledge is an abstraction derived from skill. That is how it happened in the early stages of civilization.

And this where the division also starts, and lies the origin of this blog.

As we get more advanced, it is often hard to keep both going at the same pace and at the same level. The split becomes clear when we separate training into theoretical and practical or experimental. The vocabulary so developed is carried to scientific research.

But knowledge without skill is useless. It may be for one’s entertainment and satisfaction but does not come of any use to others and society at large.

Now I come to the real reason for writing this blog. I often find students good at acquiring knowledge but no good in  implementation. They become scholars — not scientists. we are producing such students “dime a dozen” through our marks oriented competitive exams. We see the end product of such a defunct system at the PhD level. But it is often too late then.

Science is pragmatic and practical.

Among Indian students there is perhaps this tendency of knowledge gathering, without the skill, ingrained. Therefore, to counteract this tendency, I think that the emphasis on skill should be given at an early stage, through such programmes as life skills which is meant to impart skills like craft, painting.  Performing Arts is another such example of developing skill.

There is probably no need to emphasize knowledge building, as is being done today, as it happens automatically [so I think — correct me if I am wrong!].


Biman Bagchi




What an aspiring faculty candidate needs to know/do during the interview for a job in Indian academic environment

June 17, 2017

Interviewing for an academic position in India   is to be treated differently from that in the USA or in Europe. The process here is quite different, and the prospective faculty candidates need to be aware of the difference, and the effective  approach to be taken. Hence this blog.

This is not only the time to conduct PhD interviews but also the time to encounter many aspiring faculty candidates who visit India during the summer season. It is now a standard method to put in an application, contact your ex-friends and colleagues to arrange for a talk. So, we get to meet many young Indian scientists working abroad but wants to come back now. As Amitav Bachhan famously stated (I am paraphrasing here)  when asked why the world is coming to India now, “We now have money — before we didn’t — so no body came”.  Well — we do not have that much  money compared to the professors of western countries but enough to get by. The situation is much better than when we joined, with only $100 for two of us after giving rent. That was a pitiable existence.

Now, setting aside the jokes, let us come back to the  current issue of job interview. You of course will find many treatises and advice  in books with smiling crew-cut faces of apparently highly successful executives — you can pick them up most easily in the Airport book shops. They tell you to be aggressive, dress well with Calvin Klein eye glasses , to connect to people , etc etc — But let me tell you these suggestions do not work in the academia.

Okay — then what do we look for in a faculty candidate? First of all, knowledge. Second, understanding. Third, humility.  The three words you shall not find in your books by business executives.

I give you an example. over the years I have had many faculty candidates who walked through my door. One thing I always try to find out is whether the guy has/had spent any time reading our web site. We do not have a great web site but we do have one. Some of us have even individual web sites. By now I have lost much hope and do not feel surprised by the fact that aspiring faculty members did not spend even one hour studying the department they want to get a job.

This is ridiculous but true. It can upset one  but I have learned to control my reactions (because of blood pressure) but I do feel like giving a stern rebuke to the 30 odd year old boys. Such stupidity !

The lack of research about the department you go for interview expresses (a) your lack of interest and seriousness, (ii) lack of humility, and (iii) certainly no desire for understanding the problems at hand.

(i) So, my first advice is that please do come prepared. Read about our department or whatever department you are going to give Interview. Treat it seriously and treat us with respect.

(ii) Second point.  Please do not go gaga over your adviser and/or the group at the USA or Europe. We are not that bad. Many of us have had the best professors, Nobel laureates as our colleagues and advisers too, at some point of time. Students who leave India immediately after college often fail to develop any perspective of the situation at home. This of course is not excusable, and in certain way like not reading the department/Institute web site.

(iii) About the job talk. Be a bit pedagogical. In Indian science  departments (Chemistry in particular), the audience is not homogeneous.  Spend at least 15 minutes in reviewing the area, starting from basics. Do not be afraid to cover the basics. Also, stick to a time table. You shall be asked many questions. Be prepared to be interrupted. But with all these hindrance, we expect you to finish within an hour.

(iv) It is quite important when you talk with an  individual faculty member, please try to keep the back-ground of the said faculty in mind.

I once had a candidate (a theory candidate) when he/she was discussing a point, I pointed out a different picture and gave her/him my book “Molecular relaxation in liquids (Oxford, UK) — a book that I am proud of. However, the candidate did not even bother opening the book or even glance at it.

Such a huge lack of respect to wards the work of a scientist who was about twice the age of the candidate really baffled me then, and even does now.

I tried to understand the mind of the candidate. Why this suicidal tendency ? There could be two reasons. (a) She/he was not really interested in the department, or may be even the job, and (b) she/he was not alert during the conversation.

Such mistakes need to be avoided.

In this intensely competitive atmosphere, a candidate owes to himself or herself to be adequately prepared before the job interview/visit.


Biman Bagchi



Why students routinely fail to understand what is understanding ? An epidemic & a remedy ?

June 11, 2017

May be it is the English as a foreign language that is affecting our students. But there is probably an epidemic. Students fail to comprehend what is required and what is meant by understanding in science. It is so subjective that it is hard to rectify. I think the cure lies in the world of arts — however silly that sounds.

I remember that I became aware of this issue that understanding ” what is understanding”  was in fact an important aspect of science in my MSc years at Calcutta University when we had Professor Sadhan Basu started teaching us a course titled “Interaction of radiation with matter.” He followed it up in the 2nd year with two more courses. They were the best lectures I ever heard in my life.

What was magnetic about Sadhan Basu’s lecture was his ability to make everything vivid in front of us. I give you an example. When he was teaching vibrational energy relaxation, he started the class with the question : What happens when a diatomic molecule, like hydrogen, absorbs light ?” We answered “It goes to the excited state”.  SB: “What happens to the bond when the molecule is excited”, We : “The length increases”.  SB : ” What happens when the molecule in surrounded by solvent molecules”  We : “The bond gets hit by surrounding solvent molecules” SB : “What happens as a result of such collisions” We : ” The bond loses energy and comes back to the ground state/” SB : “Good. What happens to the solvent who gets the energy?”. We ” :The temperature of the solvent goes up” SB ” “By how much” We : “We need equipartition  theorem to relate energy dumped to increase in temperature.”  The session was, and sessions were, electrifying.

That was the Sadhan Basu (our beloved SB) used to teach. We realized for the first time how science should be taught and how science should be understood. I gave just one example but every class was such exciting.

But these days when I discuss science with students, I find that the students do not really know what is true understanding. Many of the terms just remain as words.  Students think that they understand but in real sense they do not. This really affects they advance into complex fields.

And I find that this is all pervasive in India. But why do we have such difficulty ? And what is the remedy ?

The reasons are not too difficult to unfathom.  First, most of the students go through academics without even once experiencing a good teacher who would be clarity himself, whose teaching could be eye opened. After a class students would say to themselves “Wow ! This is how we need to understand things”.

I also blame our use of English language. The language should be used in a simple way, not just to be memorized.

In the famous story “Alice in the wonderland”, Lewis Carroll described the situation most aptly :

When _I_ use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ 

The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’ 

A teacher must use English, still a foreign language, with skill, to explain the concepts. Sadly, this is not happening. As a result, students recourse to memorization.

That is when the problem starts — our quest for understanding goes out of the window.

But this cannot be allowed to continue for ever.

I always found that arts can play a big role. Pictures can say a thousand words. When we do not have the necessary mastery of the language, we may be helped by (i) pictures, and (ii) use of our own language.

But use of our own language is fraught with difficulty as our students need to write exams in English.

I have noticed that in Japan they not only use their language but the teachers make use of a lot of drawings and pictures to drive home the concepts into the students. It is hard work but they do it.

I think we need to make even school & college  teachers aware that understanding is essential and memorization is a no-no. We are killing first the understanding and then the creativity of students by making them memorize. It makes me terribly sad.

A concept often comes with a picture (except may be in Maths). We need to encourage this view, as Prof. Sadhan Basu taught us many years ago.


Biman Bagchi







What are the qualities that an adviser and a department look for in a PhD student, during interview ?

June 8, 2017

In this PhD Interview season, I thought it would help students if I list the qualities we look in a student before we accept him/her. As I am sitting in the Interview right now, you can regard these as coming from “horse’s mouth”. I list  them in certain order of importance  (I guess these are pretty much universal)

(i) The student should be interactive,  with certain degree of quickness. A sense of humor really helps. Keep a smiling face and laugh with the rest even at bad jokes from the professors. This is liked.

More seriously, we are really afraid of inducting a zombie in the group. The student needs to be a member of the community and help the group and the department. These days no body is directly approached and asked for help but the students need to sense the need and offer service and help.

Note that the department expects that a student spends 20-25%  of their time in helping group and department activities. Therefore, a potentially active and vibrant student is desirable.

(ii) Students should visit the department web page and read about the faculty members. This is a must but surprisingly how few students do this exercise. We are surprised and disappointed when we find the lack of interest in the students.

(iii) We look for some independence but usually not a whole lot. This is really a tricky point as it runs counter to my first point. So you need to hit a balance.

I know many professors who do not encourage much independent thinking. This is because many professors have fixed ideas how to run their research programme. Such an approach has positives and negatives. It is good to be in a group that is well run, disciplined and result oriented. But this may not suit a student who is independent, reads a lot, thinks a lot — a free wheeling type.

We need a mix of all type of students and professors in academies.

Just as a student does not want a rigid unbending professor, almost the same on the other side, except the power balance is different — the professor has the last say.

But in cases of a good professor and a good student, the relationship can be greatly rewarding. I had the opportunity of several such relationships.

But in an Interview, do not appear to be obstinate and inflexible. As I said, try to smile. Agree when you are wrong. Try to be nice to the professor asking the question — give him/her all the attention. Note that professors often have big ego (for God knows why?).

(iv) Do not be slow.   THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT. Do not be afraid. The outcome is not fully in your hand — there is a lot of uncertainty.

(v) The interview room is often a chaotic place. Most of the professors continue talking through the interview. It could be hard and even painful. But be prepared.  Not much can be done except keeping focus on the professor asking questions. They will continue talking, drinking tea/coffee.

(vi) The professors are much older than you, but unlike your father or uncle, not that forgiving. The relationship is different.

When I was doing PhD with Julian Gibbs (and this happened also with Stuart Rice at U of C),  I often saw signatures of my father in them.  This should be avoided because the sentiment is usually not reciprocal.

They are judging you. Be conscious of that. So remain alert and active. Listen carefully. Ask POLITELY to repeat a question — be polite because a professor’s ego is a dangerous thing.

(vii) A prior contact with the subject professors always help even when he/she does not reply. We often remember. But keep the communication short — very short. Like “I would like to join your research group to work on …. towards my PhD. I am finishing MSc etc etc. Please find my CV attached.” U may mention your NET qualification.

Good luck ! I might add more later.


Biman Bagchi



Why good behavior and humility are your greatest weapons in this world (not just in academia)

June 6, 2017

Arrogance never helps — that we all know — you do not gain anything by looking down on other people or insulting other people, however small or trivial they may seem.

I argue here that an overall, cultivated and directed good behavior
can do wonder to your academic career and even happiness. This is worth
cultivating earnestly.
 Biggest damage is done by few instances of bad behavior or emotional
outbursts, particularly when directed at some body powerful or your boss.
 There is a great line of poem by Sudheendranath Dutta
“One moment of humanly weakness opened the door
to my complete disaster”.
People remember — too eager to remember your failings — not your goodness.. One insult is remembered a lifetime.
Thus even when you face antagonism,  you face arrogant or bad behavior from others — may they be your colleagues, your boss or your friend — keep control.
People really remember bad behavior. It is like permanent mark — no amount of subsequent good behavior will erase, rarely remembered.
But I am not telling you to forget bad, arrogant behavior. Such people do not forget the
bad behavior you might have faced. But try not to react.
This is particularly true in India
In the USA and also in France, I have seen that they allow certain latitude for bad behavior if you have excellence. “A genius is eccentric.” But not in India.
On the other hand, good and “sweet” behavior is highly rewarded. People, particularly women  shall hold you in high regard if you are mild mannered and even tempered.
One of my senior colleagues once told me “It is okay to be arrogant but you cannot show it”. A great piece of advice for any young, starting, man in any profession, but forgotten most frequently in academics.
You need to remember that in India quality sometimes does not count. That is why we  do not have merit based promotion , at least in public institutions but rather seniority based promotion.  So your destiny is fixed the day you enter a job.
There is a well-known saying — Humility is the fine line separating arrogance and confidence.
I  add a common saying : Humility forms the not-so-fine line between success and failure.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred in their bones”

June 5, 2017

[What is stated here is clearly a personal view  but  deserves a thorough discussion — so that our own, Indian,  system gets purified.]

I was recently visiting the great Roman Forum in the Palentine Hill of Roma, Italy. We had a guide who was not only eloquent but was great in history — he was a stuudent of Classics,. His name was James — look him up if you ever visit Palentine Hill and Roman Forum. He was full of history and historical anecdotes . I knew some of them and some were new. As I grew up in the atmosphere of history and literature, my love for them are ingrained.

The part that was particularly interesting to me was the location where Julius Caesar was killed and also where Mark Antony gave him famous speech immortalized in Shakespear’s language ” Friends, Roamns,, Contrymen — lend me your ears. I came here to bury Caesar — not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interned in their bones, so it be with Caeser. He was my frined ………… ”

I verified with my guide James that indeed the speech was given but that Julius Caeser was killed at some 15 kms way at Pompei Hall which he (sensing my interest in history) told me to visit but I had little time as I was leaving the next day and it was already getting dark on the Palentine Hill.

While departing, I went to the Roman Forum, moved around the Senate Hall, the arches, the temple … tried to imagine how it was all more than two thousand years ago. It was a market place, thriving with people and countrymen — not the Nobles — they used to live far. I came to the spot where there was once a temple to Caesar — now there are some broken bricks and thick green three. It was here that Caesar was buried ? I looked around — could not see any body that could understand my elaborate (probably ill-defined) question in English, and then answer back. I was anyway in such a good mood that did not quite mind.

Why was Julius Caesar killed ? “Brutus said he was ambitious — if so it was a grievous fault” — so goes Mark Antony of Shakespeare. Earlier I had asked my guide, the truth about it all. James told me it was indeed the cause. He pointed out to  a red brick colour building on the left from the Palentine Hill, and said that once 300 Roman Senators had a meeting there to declare that Romans should never have a king or emperor  that was much before Julius Caesar. The Senate House still stands almost intact (from outside).

My children told me that Shakespeare’s depiction of Casius was not truthful. Casius is still quite a loved and common name in Spain and many parts of Europe. Was Casiuus as mean as Shakespeare made him out to be ?

Returning to my hotel, i was still absorbed with the thought ;; Casesar was killed because he was ambitious. That was and still s acknowledged to a griveous fault if you cross certain lines.

Then “the evil that men do lives after them”.

Do men become more indifferent or more ambitious or insecure with age ? Both Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath batted for the young. Sharatchandra, in his well-known epic novel “Srikanto” stated that the nobility of the mind and generosity attains its peak at youth. Rabindranath in his poem “Sabujer Abhijan” (Movement of the youth” — my translation) clearly stated that the young must replace the old.

Perhaps the main issue is a disconnect — too senior a person can hardly connect to a 40-45 year old scientist. Also, the disconnect could be all pervasive. An 80+ old person can be mislead easily because of the disconnect with ground reality.

Also, what kind of sane decisions you can take at 80+ or 90+ when life changes so fast around you ? A familiar joke I heard is that a 60+ person cannot manage smart phones. Sad but perhaps true.

The problem is that the senior (read old) science administrators form a network (every where in the world)  of their own which is hard to break,  &  control for their own good. 

There are of course exceptions. But you shall find that the exceptions are people who continue doing science. 

As I myself at 63 years of age arrived at a crossroad, I can partly evaluate the ability and need of 80+ people. They often do more damage to the system than help. As my mentor Prof.  Zwanzig told me when leaving his numero uno position at the University of Maryland (the most distinguished professor with the highest pay), he was leaving the University system as he was afraid of making more damage than good. It was typical of the scrupulously honest brilliant man. A similar sentiment was expressed by Professor Rudy Marcus, NL.

Science administration should be left to active reasonably scientists. Our non-scientist science- administrators are like the ruins of Roman Empire in the Palentine Hill.  They look good but divorced from today’s reality.

A country of young people (with much of population below 30 years of age) deserves  a younger leadership.

Biman Bagchi




How to learn a difficult new subject in higher studies ?

May 1, 2017

In this Blog I want to explore the reasons for the difficulty that our students are increasingly facing in this ever expanding fields of science and technology. I also discuss possible remedy.

Learning  almost completely changes its nature in higher studies. In schools and colleges, one develops elementary skills that are based on memorization.  Such memorization is essential when one is learning alphabets, numerals etc. The same applies to learning of a foreign language. Unfortunately such a learning comes with a heavy negative price tag. Our mind gets used to this method. Why negative ? Because logical thinking takes back-seat. In fact, the students who do better at this stage are often who have good memory AND who are obedient.

We all know the story of Einstein arguing with his history teacher. When confronted by his teacher for not studying history lesson, Einstein told that these are all available in books. So, why should one memorize at all ?

In Indian system, however, you would come last in Exams if you take such an approach. However, all is not as bad as I might be making it to be. Often good students consciously or unconsciously find patterns that use them to get over this stage without losing their reasoning ability.

As already mentioned, the nature and scope of education changes after the early teens.  From the time we started on higher arithmetic and geometry, logical thinking becomes important. You often find a few students who score poorly in lower grades suddenly become good students. I have seen it happening many times. And also the reverse. First and second ranked students till 7th grade suddenly become mediocre performers after 10th grade. In Indian system there is still too much emphasis on reading …. much less on field-work, educational trips….. Even writing is home work and from books — no scope for development of original thinking, charting out one’s own course.

But even our late-bloomers carry some of the baggage of the early memorization-based training.

In higher learning, you may often need to learn completely new things by yourself with no body to guide you. Often there would be no clear path. It is a lonely venture. One can be at a loss. You miss the simplicity of memorization and simple well laid-out path. You get frustrated, you want to give up …..

In such a situation, your own drive and resources are your biggest assets. But do we have these assets?  Or, we lose them through our own education system ? I often see students are at a loss, making too slow a progress. Note that there can be no long lasting motivation if  we do not understand subjects at some deep level.

Why ? Why it is so hard to learn and master a new subject?  Most often the root lies in our past, in our faulty, deeply faulty education system.

What I am proposing is akin to what is sometimes referred to a detoxification in the area of Naturotherapy or Naturopathy.

In detoxification you are not allowed to eat any toxic food (which, one can safely assume) include all foods that taste good). You are made to starve, drink lots of water, some awfully smelled food. It seems to work, although I have never tried it, but I know of some who tried,  apparently with good effects.

There is a close analogy. Many students love to read and read, do internet. These may appear harmless but they can intoxicate your mind. The counterpart would be to ask students to forget everything they have learned by memorization. But certainly that will not work.

What then is detoxification ? Obviously I have a prescription — otherwise I would not have started on this Blog. The idea is to revive our latent ability to think that by memorization and routine studies attempted to kill

(i) My first prescription would be that students should not be allowed to read anything for a month or so. That is, I would form a group of students who shall be asked only to discuss and reason, and write. Writing is always a “good medicine”for intoxicated students. It is like a “in house” conference but for a longer duration. You can write and talk but strictly no reading.

That is, you need to prepare a bit before you get onto a new subject.

(ii) Start with what you know, but without books. Students shall be taken to the boundary of their memory. A good question would be ask derivations of formulas (I like to write  “formulae” as plural,  but MSOffice objects  !)  that they did 3-5 years ago. They have to first reason and try to derive. They should not give up. You can take oral help. Communicate.

(iii) We do this in our Oral examinations routinely. Most students try to remember which is evident from their vacant eyes. Very few tries to logic it out. Some of them do progress by thinking after we give them a key and told them that they have to go from there.

(iv) Go to the new subject only after you thought about it. The best way is to discuss and discuss. One must find a student to discuss with. I see that at IISc many students do that while walking, or at tea/coffee at the kiosk. These students are on right track.

(v) Actually in the MBA and personality development courses, the emphasis comes back to talking, communication and writing. These are often good, effective courses. Practical.

We must start with what we know. If you think you may find that you already know a few things. But you start straight with a book from internet or library, you might be a loser.

I find many students silently reading, and reading, and reading ….  This approach does not help. At least one needs to write, make flow-charts, derive equations ….

Geoge Bernard Shaw famously said “Too much reading rots the mind”. Too much movie watching or internet does the same. We additionally finds that students who come through examinations by memorization and intensive studies have lost the independence of mind. They are to be told everything which is not desirable at all. But these students often think that the combination of “instruction & obedience” is the norm — the route to success. Nothing can be further from the truth in higher academics.

To detoxify, a student must discuss and write. That is the way to salvation. Next rule is that you need to first think about the new subject, and discuss, before you launch into a book. 

Good luck !

Biman Bagchi , IISc.



Play SAFE : Self-appraisal, flexibility and engagement (SAFE)

April 24, 2017

To be young is wonderful. But alas it does not last long.  These days .. you need to achieve a lot in a short period of time. So the best time of your life is to be managed well. It is getting increasingly harder to achieve success  that you want, often badly.

There is a great movie by  name “The Wind Rises” by Japanese movie director Hayao Miyazaki. Please watch it if you can.  There is a poignant comment made in the movie which says that one gets only ten years (mentioned as your time in the Sun)  to achieve something great. One has to make use of these ten years. This is of course metaphorical, but the message is clear. We do not get eternity. This also points to many involvements in life that comes with age.

The PhD and post doc years certainly come under “the time in the Sun”. May be the initial years as independent searcher (whether Asst Professor or a scientist).  These periods are extremely important for one’s future. This cannot be wasted. One must make use of these times.

I start with an example to illustrate what I mean. This a story from my own life but I know several others can tell similar ones. During my PhD I was stuck with a fairly useless problem,  in thesis work. However, there was no way to get out of it because my adviser would not listen to my arguments as to why this project was not going to go any where. It was a desperate situation. Frustrated, I started spending a lot of time learning different methods/techniques  in  different areas. I started interacting with two other faculty members, essentially to learn other things. Also started to spend a lot of time in the Mathematics department, auditing advanced courses. My own research did not take too much time as it was not going any where. I was aware that things were not good, and that I was not fully to blame.  But I stayed engaged in studying and learning new things.

Finally I could team up with another graduate student and finish two projects that addressed different problems but used the same methodology my adviser was advocating. As the results were not bad, I could submit my PhD thesis and get out of the mess.

But after landing at the University of Chicago, I found that I was the one with least number of publication. It was very stressful.

However, the subjects I learned outside my thesis work proved instrumental in my post doctoral work. My post doc adviser and other faculty at University of Chicago were really impressed as they did not expect me to do so many quite different problems. One of them wrote in my reco “Biman was magical”. There was no magic but I just knew a few things others around me  did not know.

This is the reason I repeatedly tell my students and others to explore many avenues, learn as many techniques as possible.

Richard Feynman attributed his success to having a different bag of tools — things he learned early outside his curriculum but those others (his fellow scientists) did not know Of course he was a genius. Bob Zwanzig always used to tell me that serious students must learn as many tricks of the trade as they can.

This is what I mean by resources. They are both outside and inside but you need to be conscious about it. Sometimes you have to reach out for help. You might be rebuffed that that is okay. Take it on your stride. Flexibility is the key.

Sometimes success is just a little away — may be on the other side of the main road. Much later, Professor Hegde of IISc. once gave me an article “How to become great?” that advocated exactly the same method. Here the writer, a successful scientist wrote how spending one or two extra hours after every body was gone from the Lab helped him master many techniques and later led to his success. It reminded one of the British footballer’s life story.  English football player  Bekham used to stay one extra hour each day after team practice to perfect his curved ball into the goal that helped him and his team in so many matches.

But how to know or learn extra things ? This is where one’s internal resources come into effect. Also, it helps to be optimistic. It helps to mix with positive people.

I wrote repeatedly that a student must avoid negative people — friends or seniors. There are a lot of them around and easy to get under their spell. It is easy to convince oneself that all efforts are futile. Luck determines everything.

I propose a a programme that can help students — I call it ” Play SAFE“. It consists of three ingredients : Self-appraisal, flexibility and engagement.

(i) A student must regularly carry out appraisal of himself and of the situation. This is routinely done in many organizations, especially in NGOs. This allows you to find out systematically your own strengths and weaknesses, and progress. This opens door for improvement.

The best way to do self-appraisal is to prepare a write-up.   Take a note book and write down yourself  your strengths and weaknesses.  BE BRUTALLY HONEST. You are doing it for yourself — you are important. If you have a good friend, discuss with her/him. Discuss with your adviser if you can.

My friends and classmates at Presidency College (Calcutta) once carried out such an exercise. Unfortunately I was away that day. But they told me their appraisal of me. It was extremely useful. I still do not remember why they did it. But that was Presidency for you ! It was really the best those days — amazingly versatile, bright and creative students. We hear soo much about IITs and their penchant for making money but do not talk about great colleges like Presidency. What a shame !

(ii) Once you have done the appraisal, you need to reach out. This needs an important resource. You need to be flexible and less ego. Ego prevents you from reaching out for help. Flexibility in approach helps. You need to rectify your weaknesses and you shall need help.  You would need to change.

(iii)  Engagement. This requires not just hard work (a cliche — every body tells you to work hard but you need to know how to work hard). Engagement with your work is essential. This in turn leads to success. If you are engaged you shall automatically work hard. Sometimes this is called dedication but I like engagement better. The latter makes more practical sense.

Everybody should practice SAFE. It will really help !

Good luck !

Biman Bagchi



Are we racist ? Or, clannish ?

April 19, 2017

[This is a contentious subject — a taboo. But let me plunge into it. This must be talked about — especially to, for and by young people.]

Once an African American professor who was a good friend of mine told me bluntly ( after couple of beers, of course) “You Indians are the most racist”. It was quite sometime ago. Till that time, I did not think that we were racist by any means — this thought did not even enter my mind (we are now talking about early 1980s folks –long time ago). But the assertion of the African American Professor got me thinking about it. I remember the statement periodically when ever I read disturbing reports in the newspapers.

I had several American African students in my class when I was a TA (might be two or three) at the Brown University. but other than some difficulty in understanding their speech, I had no problem. Actually I enjoyed interacting with them.

But my African American professor friend told me that he had friends in the sociology departments, and they found a curious fact. There was/is hardly any marriage between a person of Indian origin and an African American — whatever sex you consider.

That kind of made me started thinking along this line.  I looked around me and found, indeed —  several of my Indian friends/acquaintances were married to/engaged etc. to white Americans but not a single of my Indian friends had ever been even close to those whom we refer to as blacks.

On the surface of it, my African American friend had a point that I could not deny. But it did not quite ring true.

I needed to grow much older to realize that what we have in our mind is not quite racism — but something probably even more stronger — a highly clannish attitude. You may also call it caste but I think that in urban India, that factor is less stronger than before.

We are not inclusive people.

We always see Bengali boys going with Bengali boys, Telegus and Malyalam boys doing the same. It is all pervasive — survives even amongst Indians in the USA or Germany, may shall be so in the Moon when we start living here (if we survive that long).

Since we do not mix among ourselves, how can we honestly mix with others ?

I have fortunately found one group of Indians who are exceptional in this. These are the people who grew up in Delhi or Bombay — mostly out of state people. I have many friends who are from South India but grew up in Bombay, and they are fantastic friends, inclusive  all around. But then when they got married to women from their respective regions, the situation changed dramatically.

We are certainly no inclusive people.

Since this clannish social pattern is surviving so well for so long, it is worth taking a look at it from different angles. It certainly helps people stay in their comfort zone — you know how to greet, how to talk etc etc. It is easy to arrange marriages and everybody knows what to expect. You can approach one for a job, or a chore, sometimes unethical. You can appeal to the commonality patriotism as the reason for the asked favor. So, there are many advantages.

Thus, on the surface — it seems to work. So what could be wrong ? Why should be not clannish ? After all we have been clannish for centuries.  So, what is wrong being clannish ? Why is this perceived to be wrong, a signature of narrowness of our mind?

First, you miss out a lot in this great great world of ours. Different people are different and that is the charm. You ultimately fail to connect with people, at a deeper level.  You miss out on art — not being able to connect to art and music of other countries. You miss out on history which is so wonderful. Note that good regional writers are/were never clannish. Rabindranath, Sarath Chandra, Bankim Chandra, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Premchand  ……… were never clannish or regional. Whole India appeared in their vision. For Rabindranath, the world was one.

Lastly but not the least (had to use the cliche) — you miss out on food !

It is so stupid to be clannish !

But alas ! My African American Professor friend was only  partly correct. That is, we are not just racist, but we are clannish. Even when it is stupid to be clannish, we cannot get out of it.


Biman Bagchi