The Ph.D. Years: Enjoy but use it too, in a meaningful way!

January 18, 2019

Many of us look back at the Ph.D. years with nostalgia and happiness that could hardly be matched by any other period of our life. During those years many things came together to create a unique lifestyle: the test of true freedom, the economic independence from parents, spending unlimited time with friends, parties through the night, many trips ….. the list goes on. For me it was really joyful — of course, past is always golden.

Students should enjoy, without, of course, sacrificing research work. But whatever happens in research, a few things students should note.

Students often do not realize — the most important training for most of them (and us at our own times)  get doing Ph.D. is the skill to communicate. And this is where the difference is often made when searching for jobs and making a career, especially so in science., and for students in India.  Students often made to believe that publishing a few good papers in good journals is what is the key to success. Note that even your chance of hitting good journals depend on your skill of writing and presenting results in an organized fashion that appeals to people. Yes — often your adviser writes or guide does for you, but if intensive guidance is required in your 4th or 5th year, then things have not gone well for you. Often students are not allowed to write, and the outcome could be sad.

The second aspect of communication is the skill to present results. Here of course even faculty members often falter.

I have known many Indian Ph.D. students feel completely out of sort in a foreign laboratory.

Our students can often give good talks, make good ppt presentation, but when comes to writing a decent sentence — it is just awful. This poor English frustrates the teacher to no small degree.

I have found that Chinese students are often good writers. They do not write literary English but can write a paper coherently without making many grammatical mistakes.

This is a good example to discuss my point. Chinese do not follow the Indo-European method of constructing a sentence, with articles, subjects, objects and verb placed differently.  I do not fully know but what I have seen suggests that the “Kanji” alphabets often carry a lot of meaning — more than just a word. A Chinese scholar knows more than 5000 Kanji letters.

So, for Chinese students, it this requires a lot of efforts to learn English writing. Actually, I found that Chinese students often do not speak good English but write surprisingly well. This means that they have given huge efforts to learn the essential skill. As they often start English quite late, it speaks volumes of their teachers and training, and also of the efforts that they spend.

So, we are forced to conclude that the poor English writing skill by Indian students is largely due to lack of efforts.

What I trying to communicate is that a student might not get a good job even after good research work if communication skill is inadequate.

Both the students and the academic institutions should take note of this. Students in particular. Spend time and effort to improve.

Biman Bagchi

Bengaluru

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Are Western (Europe, USA) societies genuinely “far” more appreciative of talent than us, the Indians?

January 13, 2019

Let us start by remembering that one of the main architects of modern India, Swami Vivekananda (Bibekananda in Bengali) received his first major recognition in Chicago, USA. That recognition and ovation he received played important role in establishing Swamiji in India and made his job of transforming India easier. Swamiji recommended that every Indian should leave the shore of India (I am paraphrasing and writing from memory) at least for once, to know themselves, to know India, to serve India. Why did Swamiji give such advice? Is it because we do not know ourselves? In those days, Indians probably more obsessed with themselves, and going out of homeland would have opened mind’s eye?

We often criticize and complain about the difficulty in publishing in journals like Nature, Science, PNAS  and point out at the bias against us in the western publication media. Maybe part of it is true. But it is also true that the scientists who are often admired at home are the ones who received laurels abroad. Admiration is different from awards — the former comes from the heart while the latter could have many origins.

There is a famous Bengali poem that I remember here. It says that we all love a foreign dog while neglect our owns. It sounds much better in Bengali poem. nevertheless, it conveys the idea at least partly.

We are not capable of admiring or respecting our own people. I am not talking of Virat Kohli, Priyanka Chopra, and likes who get ample admiration from the public. But then scientists are usually ignored everywhere, by public at large.

But within our own community, as mentioned above, success is measured by publishing just a few papers in Nature and Science.  One gets all the awards just by one such publication which is so silly. I often hear praise about a chemist by stating “he published 3 papers a JACS, or Angawend, ….. “FRS” is a membership respected far more in India than even in the UK.

All these point out that we do not care or want to know about the science part of a paper.

I know many theoretical chemists abroad who are widely respected, give many invited lectures but not a member of any academy. Anyway, there are not many awards there. I am told that China has no awards, but the Chinese are doing great. Maybe the time has come to remove all the awards in India too!

Probably awards, fellowships have had their values at one stage but now they are just igniting rat race which is better avoided for good of science in India.

Biman Bagchi

Bengaluru.

Freedom in academics: A myth?

January 9, 2019

I sometimes receive mail from students asking me to write a blog on the freedom in PhD research. Some of the students are distressed because their adviser does not grant them any freedom. They hear about the freedom that students enjoy in other groups, or have somewhat wrong pre-conceived ideas about academic life. Hence this blog. I shall first address a few general issues, and in between, I discuss the issues faced by students.

What do we mean by “freedom in academics”, a word used more often in the yesteryears than I get to hear these days? Is it that we can do anything whatever we want, including nothing? There is certain glory with the words “academic freedom” — at least in our time.

Let us contrast/compare the professional life of a faculty with a mid-level executive in a company. The difference is amazing. First, the faculty apparently has no boss telling him what to do. Second, he need not report to work at any specific time, like 8 AM. Third, the faculty can work after office hours, without extra pay of course. Our executive leads an entirely different life, reports to a boss at a specific time, need not be on a regular basis or in person but a watch is there. Both attend meetings but of a different nature.

The cumulative goals and effects are different. Once I heard Professor Robin Hochstrasser doing a comparison between his life and his son-in-law’s who was a big CEO in a company. I still remember Robin’s words : “when my son-in-law goes on a vacation, he goes first class, to a fancy resort (all expenses paid. But what does he do after reaching there? He sleeps most of the time because he is bone tired. And me? I come to conferences, all expenses paid. I have to travel economy of course, but I enjoy the conference, the talks, and the discussions, and the good wine!” All of us had a good laugh and felt a bit sorry for his CEO son-in-law, but French wine soon drowned everybody’s sorrow.

Teaching is usually a major part of the academic activity for a faculty. Other than that, there are many faculties in Indian Universities/Institutes, who really do not do anything very useful. By the latter, I mean that the work is neither front line nor fundamental. One could then ask: What is then their contribution? After teaching for a few years, teaching does not remain a hard job.

This has always a hotly debated subject. If you do a google on “academic freedom”, you shall find a large number of hits including one article by Wiki. Academic freedom is broadly defined as the freedom of faculty to pursue their subject of choice uninhibited. That is, the society and the immediate surroundings do not pose any hindrance. This definition presupposes that we are doing something useful. The question is: Are we?

In addition, there is the question of the research grant. It appears to me that somehow the availability of research grant has become entangled with academic freedom. That is, a researcher inherently believes that he or she deserves a grant to pursue their research.

I do not fully understand the latter point. First, I am a theoretician. Second, I have performed work all my life without any major grant, except one from BRNS (courtesy Prof. Pulle Rama Rao who was then Chairman of the Apex Committee)    that allowed me to buy the computer cluster which played an effective role in publishing more than 100 papers, maybe even 125 in the last 10 years or so. We could carry out a large number of computer simulations. The negative aspect of this was that I found that my students love to use packages to produce some quick papers. This led to an untimely death of analytical work in our group.

Now, returning to academic freedom, I remember one thing that my thesis adviser Julian H Gibbs used to remind us that”freedom of academics depend on academicians themselves”. Towards the end of his career, he became the President of Amherst Collge, his Alma Mater. He was then given to deliver philosophical lectures of various sorts, some were quite remarkable.

But as a PhD student, we did not have really have a great deal of freedom. I worked on various other problems but mostly I kept them secret from my adviser which was probably both right and wrong.

PhD students probably are the most enslaved part of the academic community. They often have to work hard. It could be particularly bad for those groups where faculty keeps the student “on a tight leash”. Poor guys! I feel sorry for them. Students cannot even rebel because their whole career could be at stake. 

This is particularly true for girl students who are often seen as docile and obedient and are brought out to be such. But it would be wrong to assume that they do not harbor strong resentments.

So, freedom in academics is a mixed bag. It is most enjoyed by non-performers in every major institution and university, those who lack ambition but like to gossip. There is no system in place, at least in India, to control them, going to tea/coffee for 5-6 times a day. What is worse, they even take students. These students are the worst sufferers.

Maybe the faculty does not need freedom. Instead, the students do, with due guidance. The huge thing that we call science is driven by students and postdocs who hardly have the freedom.

Biman Bagchi,

Bengaluru.

For students: How to improve continuously?

December 27, 2018

I recently wrote a Blog on the sense of entitlement that is becoming common among Indian students. That is, students expect to get things, instead of earning them themselves. This sense of entitlement originates from a false sense of self-importance, can be regarded as a form of Narcissism.

Some students, however, do not have such mental handicap, and genuinely like to improve. It is, therefore, a pity that a good majority of them stop improving beyond a point. I notice the same among people around us, except a few remarkable individuals. My concern is students. Why do they stop improving? What stops or slows them down? What goes in their mind? Don’t they realize that they must continue to improve?

There is a house in the same alley where I live that is owned by a friend of mine. His name is Mr. Muralidhar. The alley is just off the  Main Road in Malleswaram 18th Cross. area. When we first knew the Muralidhar family, they had a modest home — half of a one-story building — — a couple of rooms in the back of the house always dark, five members with two sons and an elderly person used to live there. Slowly they improved, purchased the front part from a relative, gradually built up the first floor, then a shaded roof. Then they bought a car. Now they essentially have a mansion, looks great. But even then I see them continue working on the house, making it look better, improving facilities.

The same obsession we find often in gardeners. The tenacity with which people work on gardens is nice to watch.

Human life should be like that — we should always strive to improve. The question is : how to do that, or how to find the motivation, keep the zeal and set the goal ?

The difficulty that students face when they start to research that they have no clue how to go about. On top of that, some come with wrong pre-conceived notions about research, and that it is easy, it is routine work.

The most important tool to improve is already in students hand. It is easy to state but hard to do. The most important tool in self-improvement is  reading — extensive reading of the literature surrounding the research — books, review articles, old papers. Reading not just clears mind but allows students to focus on the problem. It is critically important that students themselves develop a perception, to generate new ideas!  In these days 

The second most important point (that I have talked about in one my early blogs) students need to keep good, meaning useful, company. Friends make a man. There are lots going around without any ambition — they shall fall on the wayside. Avoid them.

Third (an important one), do not mindlessly go on vacations and waste time. In case you are forced to go, carry books and read. You shall get enough time to laze around later in life. Successful people work round the clock in the early stage.

Fourth (I have stated repeatedly) — learn to write correct English! This is again not hard, with books like “Strunk and White”. I find it amazing that despite repeated warnings students fail to learn correct English. And they all aspire for a foreign post doc  This is another reflection of “entitlement” that has pervaded our students. They think that they deserve because they are ! (changing  Descartes a bit).  They certainly deserve sweets their mother offer, but neither the papers or the positions.

All the good people I have worked with, Prof. Bob Zwanzig, Graham Fleming, Stuart Rice, Peter Wolynes, David Oxtoby …. everybody — is/was a constant reader.

Amongst us, Prof. CNR Rao, Bharat Ratna, reads constantly. Whenever I meet him, he tells me about the new books he is reading or read. He tells us stories or events from the book. Recently he told us about the life of Freeman Dyson that I did not know about.

All the people I mentioned above, and other successful men of science — all improved continuously. Life is like a river — ever flowing, touching new banks.

It can be a wonderful journey but only if you make it, by reading, by writing and by persevering.

Good luck!

Biman Bagchi,

Bengaluru.

 

 

 

For students: The sense of entitlement does not help in research because there is none

December 25, 2018

We all harbor a certain sense of entitlement. This is common in humans,  more common in affluent societies than in poor societies. We get this sense of entitlement from our parents, relatives, even sometimes from teachers. We are led to believe from the early life that we “deserve things” —we deserve things to be done for us.

Let me explain it a bit more. Let us take the example from this holiday season. Today is the Christmas Day — the time for giving and taking in the western world. In India, we do the same in puja times. In Bengali societies, Durga Puja is a great time to exchange gifts. After the puja, time to give and receive sweets. So, in those days whenever a relative and friend used to come home, we children expected some goodies. The most welcome was Cadbury chocolates. The idea of giving never entered our mind. After all, we were children. Some parents at least teach their children to say “Thank You” when a gift received.

There is a famous story that I heard from my father. Son of a king was sent to school ran by a famous pandit, a well-known guruji — an educated man. The school was also famous, for many reasons. The quality of education was excellent. Nevertheless, after a month or so, the son went to his father, the king, and complained about the school and the teachers. “Father: the teacher makes me study the same lessons as everybody else, make me write the same things, the same amount of work. It is hard. I am a king’s son — I must have a different, easier road to learning.” The affectionate father thought what the son was saying reasonable. Surely, why should a king’s son need to toil like other ordinary citizen’s children? So, he called the Teacher and asked him : ” Guruji, there must a way to teach my son that is different and easier than others. Why does he need to follow the same path as others?”. The Guruji folded his hand and said : ” My Lord, but I know of no other path to education. They must all learn the alphabets, and 3R’s the same way. If you know of a different path, please let me know.” The King realized that what the son was asking was based on an expectation of privileged treatment that certainly did not exist in the world of education.

This is an apt example. These days I find in students and young researchers a strong sense of entitlement. Interestingly, this sense of entitlement is, I find,  more in male students than in the better sex. I also sense this in young faculty. Things have decidedly has become bad because of so many awards being distributed often in a seemingly random fashion.

Returning to the issue of entitlement, it is truly bad for students and young researchers. You get nothing free in this world, and you should not expect anything free.

Continue with my analysis, the sense of entitlement often leads to the idea in students that they can receive things without even acknowledging. An example abundant in my group is that when I suggest good ideas, they just take it, as if it is free. Then when work gets stuck, we get them over which we are probably supposed to do, but again students take it as if it is Professor’s or teacher’s duty to always get them over the barrier.

Indian students, by and large, do not know how to say “Thank you”. Their sense of entitlement deeply ingrained in them (especially, male students) make them think that they deserve everything they get. And that they do not need to give back. Another curious characteristic is that they continue to think that they are still children — the need to take control of one’s own life goes unappreciated.

But then at the end of the day, it is also the duty of parents and the teachers. We thus often find that children from families where one of the parents is very strict, and the other soft, turn out to be hardworking and realistic.

Strange are the ways of life. But however strange, it is also real in its ability to give pain and cause misery. Frustration is real.

Trust only those who criticize you and call for improvement.

Biman Bagchi,

Bengaluru, 25-12-2018

Changing face of Theoretical Chemistry — and let not be “Kupamanduka”!

December 17, 2018

Any theoretical discipline (or, for that matter, any science discipline) undergoes certain fairly discernible stages of development. Initial ideas that seed the area is often followed by rapid growth which could be explosive. Then comes a stage of steady growth. After this second period, the subject enters a phase where its long-term survival is determined by its utility.

For example, the electromagnetic theory remains enormously valuable since the formulation by Faraday and Maxwell. Many of us use the theory on daily basis. The same cannot be said for the general theory of relativity, which is although highly respected and useful in the world of astrophysics and cosmology, finds little use in chemistry and biology.  There are actual few theories like electromagnetic theory. Of course, classical mechanics and Newton’s laws of motion are used every day — they provide us with a sense of understanding and the tool to control the world around us.

But in chemistry, we often deal with more specific and less general aspects. The grand generality of physics and mathematics is missing (often) in chemistry. Maybe the concept of chemical bond that makes the world and also the activated rate theories provide the most general pictures that we have come up with. Biologists, of course, have Darwin’s theory of evolution and the genetic code. Those are great and universal.

Thus, a theoretical chemist often deals with topics of interest limited to chemistry only. That is, the sphere that a theoretical chemist inhabits is a much smaller world. I would even say a narrower world. Chemists are of course a great believer in building fences — we would go ahead and say “Theoretical organic chemistry”, “Theoretical Biophysical Chemistry”, etc. etc. This has one advantage. ALL OF US CAN THINK THAT WE ARE GOOD THEORETICIANS. This reminds me of the well-known story of the frog in a small well — the story of “Kupamanduka” –– the well-frog. I resist the temptation of recounting the full story, however much pride & pleasure  I take in narrating a story. But I know people who take great pride in using DFT and publishing a few papers, in writing a Green’s function solution. Little do they realize that the great big world of science outside has no time and patience for our small problem-solving abilities.

It is the idea that matters, new ideas, but alas! So hard in Chemistry.

Theoretical chemistry has for long depended on two pillars: Quantum Chemistry and Statistical Mechanics.  Armed with these two, a theoretical chemist attempts to explain the changes around us — the chemical change, the structural change, the biological change. In this pursuit, we employ thermodynamic methods (temperature and pressure changes) spectroscopy of chemical species that probes the environment, of late imaging of various kinds.

It is mostly correct to state that Physical Chemistry was born around 1900 with the seminal contributions of Arrhenius, Ostwald, van’t Hoff in Europe and great J.W.  Gibbs in the USA. These great scientists were concerned with the relationship between kinetics and thermodynamics, the observed temperature dependence of rate constants, phase changes and phase rule, acid-base equilibrium. What we read in the undergraduate text was the work of these people. These studies were devoted mostly to liquids and solids.

 Theoretical chemistry expanded rapidly post the quantum era, with seminal contributions from Pauling and others. The nature of the chemical bond and the spectroscopy was finally understood in the quantitative terms. Suddenly a chemist could calculate stabilization energy of coordinate complexes, could calculate quantitatively many spectroscopic parameters. Life was fun!  Another beneficiary was gas phase kinetics. As the Nobel Prize to Lee, Hershbach and Polanyi underline the importance of the use of quantum chemistry to obtain the reaction energy surface since then widely used.

During 1950-1970, great advances were made in quantum chemistry, with a significant number of theoretical chemists were engaged in studies of small molecules. Advances in computer technology added the fuel needed. However, these studies were mostly restricted to isolated molecules or to the low-density gas phase. Ultimately, the field matured into treating larger organic molecules. Subsequently, sophisticated methods and packages (like Gaussian) became available. We may term this spectacular development period as a “Quantum Period” , 1940-1990.

The main goal of chemistry, however, remains the study and understanding of chemical reactions and chemical transformations. At least most of the desired goals. This has remained invariant for theoretical chemists from the time of Arrhenius, van’t Hoff and Ostwald. The beautiful theory of Rudy Marcus (of electron transfer reaction) was a natural culmination of many of the ideas developed in the earlier years. Nearly all the principles were laid down during this period. Subsequent years largely saw applications as more powerful computational accessories became available.

It naturally transpired that the utility of quantum chemistry is in providing potential energy surfaces of reaction. As chemistry and biology deal with complex reactions, quantum chemistry is increasingly being called upon to deal with complex systems.

However, there were many aspects of chemical reactions that required a different kind of theory. For example, the isomerization reactions, like cis-trans isomerization, exhibits an anomalous viscosty dependence of rate. For many reactions, concentration and temperature and pressure dependence are hard to understand without a detailed theory.

These aspects required a statistical description which was obtained through the work of Smoluchowski and Kramers who used stochastic descriptions that were ultimately based in Einstein’s beautiful work on Brownian motion. These class of theories was intimately connected with the elegant theories of random walk and the first passage problem developed by Montroll and others. The latter body of work allowed the inclusion of many molecular aspects into the stochastic description.

Advances in ultrafast laser spectroscopy allowed the study of a huge number of processes in physics and chemistry. Suddenly a physical chemist can measure the ultrafast processes such as electronic relaxation in malachite green and crystal violet. One could dream of measuring the rate of energy transfer in photosynthesis

However theoretical chemistry underwent a decisive change During 1970-1980, biophysical chemistry was born, partly due to the efforts of Lifson (Israel) and Karplus (USA) groups. This often required the use of both quantum chemistry and computer simulations. And also a good amount of statistical mechanics.

Two important areas of broad interest in science in general where physical chemists recently made contributions are glass transition and protein folding. 

The modern age theoretical chemist would see an increasing amount of interaction between experimental work in the field of biology and materials science,  Computer simulations shall be employed even more than at present. The scope of doing meaningful work using packages shall shrink. One can and shall, of course, continue using these, but the prestige of a theoretician shall not depend on these.

At the end of the day, a true discovery shall need to be known outside its initial narrow confinement. Scientists in other disciplines should also appreciate it and at best, use it. That is the true success of a theory, that we find in the theories of Onsager, Marcus, Zwanzig and others who as theoretical chemists have influenced physics and biology, and not to a small measure. Those were great theories — meet the highest standard.

Ultimately, it is our choice — do we want to engage with the rest of the science or remain, as I already stated, as a “Kupamanduka” — the well frog.

Biman Bagchi

Bengaluru, 17-12-2018

 

 

Time to go beyond the awards

December 8, 2018

Of late I have been traveling a lot — attending many conferences, listening to many lectures, something I kind of avoided for long. In the process, I heard many good talks by young people — our next generation “would be heroes” of science, more particularly in chemistry. One thing I “discovered” is that our next generation young scientists are more competent than we were, they have become better speakers at a younger age than we were.

However, a different thing bothered me. I found that our next generation tends to have become more aware of future awards than we were. These days awards are strongly age-dependent. INSA Young scientist award impose an age limit of 35 years, Swarna Jayanthi set the limit at 40, Bhatnagar at 45, and the new big guy in town, the “Infosys Prize” declares the age limit of 55 but prefers younger selection. Of these, Swarna Jayanthi and Bhatnagar are the two most prized. The former because of the large research grant that comes with it, while the second one (SSB) is for the prestige — both at relatively young ages.

Probably, the awareness about the awards is not bad. But a scientist should not hanker after the awards. It should come naturally.

The positive effects of this award consciousness is the drive to compete and the drive to excel. These are good things. And these are the goals of an award, in addition to giving recognition to good work.

There are negative effects too. As the more and more scientists enter the research stream, the fraction of scientists getting these awards decrease. In our time, almost 1 out of 2, or at most 3 candidates, used to get these awards. I am counting the scientists from IISc and IITs and IACS who were most visible. The chance of getting an award was high.

Now the situation has changed completely. Not only many more IITs, but also IISERs, NISER, and other national institutes have good scientists who are eligible for the awards.

It is very difficult to differentiate among so many good people. This is particularly difficult in chemistry where we always had three divisions, physical, organic and inorganic, but now materials chemistry has also been added as a distinct sub-discipline.

So, two positions to be divided among four disciplines. And still, as of now, there is no rule how to go about.

My estimate is that in any given year more than 50-100 chemists and getting nominated for these awards and finally, only a couple are given.

Clearly, many good people won’t get it! It makes the system look bad, lack certain validity.

In the USA, there are also awards but people are much less concerned. There is some madness about the election to their national academy. It is this madness that led Richard Feynman to resign from every position.

What Feynman found objectionable was the “campaign” that people undertake for these awards/positions. He found it deeply objectionable and demeaning to scientists.

It is a very good sign that we have so many young scientists striving for success. However, they should strive for excellence, not for awards.

The problem is that the very definition of success has become muddled. It has become synonymous to publication in a good journal. This is unfortunate because, as the ex JACS Editor-in-Chief Alan Bard pointed out, good articles are still largely published in mainstream journals.

However, that is a different issue, although related. Right now, the thought that crosses my mind is that the lack of awards and recognition should not ruin the peace of mind and joy of our young scientists. As such, the pressure of publication is pretty bad. If we add to that the pressure to get awards, it is too much. I am fully aware of the politics that has started about these.

I hold the selfishness and pettiness of our generation partly responsible for the mess we have created. We failed to inculcate among our young scientists a value system that makes them immune to the vulgarity of the present award system.

But each young generation re-discovers itself. So, I do not give up hope.

In the meantime, I recommend young scientists not to be too much bothered by these awards. Let them come naturally. If they do not, just say “I do not care”. You should be at least partly in control your mind. Do not let a bunch of people to control your life.

Biman Bagchi             08-12-2018

Bengaluru

Committee members (selection, award, promotion) should keep confidence and silence …. but … in India?

November 24, 2018

We jokingly used to say that to become members of award committees lead to the creation of enemies. It could happen in so many ways— some hilarious, but some not so amusing. Worst is the “lie” (often not deliberate)  people spread about you. I remember one colleague of mine at BARC was so upset with me because somebody told him that I opposed his candidature in a selection. First, I did not utter a single word because as a theoretician I hardly comment or judge an experimentalist. Second, I have had no ill feelings towards this guy and did not keep track of what he/she did. Frankly, that person was of no “personal” or professional interest to me.

But such is life! I believe this kind of behavior comes from an undue and unnecessary self-importance. First, the committee members sometimes tell of all kinds of things some of which they make up (fertile imagination)  or confuse A with B. The desire to speak about the happenings in a committee stems from the attention one gets from younger or less privileged colleagues. Everybody likes to hear a good story, here a life story, full of intrigue, conspiracies, contradictions. In the hand of a good narrator, it can really be interesting. The speaker’s desire/crave for importance also gets satisfied. A win-win situation!

After a rather long time, I am traveling these days,  giving many lectures. Many are name lectures, some are institute lectures, some are distinguished lectures, and so on. I am grateful for all the invitations.

It is fun to meet especially younger colleagues, although they often would rather avoid oldies like us.

The fall side of the travel is that you get to know many things (that you would rather not know) about others, and even about yourselves that you were not aware of — like that BARC colleague of mine. As I mentioned above, these are often neither scientific nor correct. But as Agatha Christie used to say “human nature is the same everywhere”. So, some amount of gossiping must be going on almost everywhere.

I remember that we used to jokingly say that mobiles of some committee members used to start ringing the moment they reached the airport. But these days, text messages have replaced the phones. Texting avoids anybody from hearing or listening.

I understand the tension of the people nominated. I also understand it is not a fair game out there in this “dog-eat-dog” world. But some amount of confidentiality is indeed needed. As in the case of my BARC colleague, one could easily spread wrong information. This is unfair to everybody — to the candidates (first of all), then to the committee members, then to the system as a whole.

I do have a remedy.  The chairman of each committee should remind the members at the very start that it is their noble duty to keep confidence because dignity and career of young people are involved. Maybe every member should even sign a declaration.

We should report if the oath is violated by any to the chairman or to the higher authority.  The guilty member should be black-listed. The chairman clearly needs to be a responsible person.

Our young generation deserves much better!  Information about what happens in a committee should be kept strictly confidential. Even the candidates should not talk about it. And certainly not the committee members.

Biman Bagchi                 24-11-2018

Bengaluru.

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

November 9, 2018

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”  Such a simple but important saying with its deep message. It also tells that unabashed opportunism does not help in the long run.

It of course depends on what we ultimately want in life. Well, we all want to be happy. But to become happy, we need a few things. As Werner Heisenberg articulated in an elegant way, and I shall paraphrase it. “In old days we needed food, shelter and music. Now, science has replaced music as the basic necessity of life. To be happy, we need food, shelter, and science.”

Many of the scientists of our earlier generation were men of great integrity. many of them were physicists, but we also had W.H. Nernst, Ostwald … who were great men of science but were chemists, physical chemists. In India, we had Jnan Ghosh. He did great work on electrochemistry and thermodynamics that won the praise of likes of Nernst, Planck.  He was not only the Director of IISc., after Sir CV Raman, but he mooted the idea of IITs. He was the first Director of IIT-Kharagpur. Students liked him so much that they went on a strike to prevent him from leaving IIT-Kgp when he was appointed the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University.

The above saying, “to stand for something”,  is particularly relevant in academic life. We find that the students who lament (too much) for the lack of scholarship after joining the Ph.D. programme almost always falter because their mind is focussed on money while research needs a different type of mindset. Even among my colleagues, I see that focus on money ruins academic excellence.

Bharat Ratna Professor CNR Rao was fond of saying “If you want to make money, make the same through science and research.” What he meant was that one could bring some amount of affluence by writing books, getting awards and Fellowships etc. Of course money was a big issue in our times when Professors were struggling. In particular, I had only Rs. 700/= left after paying rent and other essentials, in 1984. Rs. 700/= for food — for two of us. We could not even dream of a car. The entire IISc had just one car — a white ambassador. Those were the days! But if my memory does not fail me, we were happy, and at least I was working hard.

My friend Prof. Kankan Bhattacharyya once told my son a great sentence  “Do not chase money and fame. Let fame and money chase you.” A good piece of advice.

Certain faith and believe should be rock-solid in your mind. And certain values. They will hold you like a container holds water and does not allow to get waste by flowing everywhere. We should have our Dharma. This is applicable not just to science, but to all spheres of life.

Our intrinsic value system also should allow us to differentiate between good and bad science, between good and bad scientists. All of us require a model to look up to.

Biman Bagchi

09-11-2018,  Bangalore.

 

Apocalypse time finally on us? India and the planet earth

October 27, 2018

Twelve years is a minuscule time in the history of a planet. It is minuscule even in human civilization which seems to have evolved over 50,000 years or so. But the next 12-15 years could be defining years in human history. And this is not because of any war among big states (as long feared, and shown in the movie “Planet of the Apes” ) or epidemic wiping out half of the humanity, as long feared and been the subject of science fictions. But the one I am referring to could be termed as “The Revenge of the Mother Earth”.

Our poet Rabindranath Tagore used to warn of this — he termed it as “Nature’s revenge”. In Bengali, “Prakitir Pratishodh”. We used to ignore this warning, although it came repeatedly. He told us “Do not cut the trees”. Both Gandhi and Tagore repeatedly advised simple living and plain thinking, in harmony with nature.

The projection of the dire state of Mother Earth in general and India, in particular, are so alarming that one expected these to set the alarm bell ringing loud and clear and all to rush out and do something to save our beloved Mother Earth.

We all read the dire prediction that at the present rate, the temperature of the earth shall increase by 1.5 deg C by 2030-2050 and this shall have disastrous/devastating consequences for India where water is already scarce.

However, despite the stern warning from scientists and reputable sources, life continues around us as if nothing is amiss. We go on doing everyday chores without the least botheration.

This again reminds me of a famous story from Mahabharata — the great epic of India. In this story, the bothers of Yudhishthira went to fetch water as the team was thirsty, all of the brothers, except Yudhisthir (who was the last to go), succumbed to death because they ignored the warning of the Dharma (the God of religion). disguised a Crane (in the Bengali version of the story)  When Yudhisthira final reached the pond, the Crane again told him to stop and answer the questions before touching the water. Unlike his brothers, he heeded the words of the Crane and was prepared to answer the questions posed by Dharma. What ensued is an important educational exercise from Mahabharata. There were deep questions and even deeper answers that we all read in our school days.

One of the questions was: “What is the most astonishing thing in this world ?”. Yudhishthira answered “Every day we see people and animals dying all around us. Yet we continue to live as if nothing will ever happen to us and we shall continue to live  indefinitely and individually.”

We see a similar situation unfolding before us. And if we do not heed, we shall meet the same destiny at the four younger brothers of Yudhisthira, except that our demise could be more painful. What could be done, what could we do? One of the first things is to reduce the use of cars and types of machinery that generate heat and pollution. Second, plant as many trees as possible. Let us start discussing it seriously. There should be more debates, writings, arguments and analysis about the danger, to create public awareness so that coherent action can follow. For example, I do not drive any longer, although have to use the car now and then — feel guilty about driving. I know many of my foreign friends feel the same way.

There is little room for doubt that weather shall soon cross a point of no return, in at most 30-50 years.

I often wonder these days: What kind of earth are we leaving for our children? It makes me immensely sad.

If that thought does not make you sad and worried, then what will?

 Biman Bagchi

27-10-2018, Bengaluru.

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