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 others. This is like facing 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




Why do we like our own picture/face so much ?

February 7, 2018

When I was traveling back from work today in Bengaluru Metro, I sat between a young man on one side and a young woman on the other. They were both busy with their cell phone, as is usual. After a while I was a bit curious to find out the subject of their such deep interest. I found that both of them were taking their own pictures, with different facial expressions and angles, with their cell phones which appeared to be quite expensive. They were quite young, may be in their early twenties. Two things stand out. (a) They most likely did not use their own money to buy these expensive mobiles. (b) Even the boy/young man was taking selfie.

I need not comment on the great Indian obsession with selfie. My question is different and a lot more scientific : why we do we like our own picture so much ? If we ask this question to a “learned” person, the answer invokes “Narcissism” which depicts the poor  Greek  young man Narcissus falling in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water, and ultimately dies by falling into the pool. A sad ending.  I never liked the story. Falling in love with one’s own beauty is not such a crime that you have to die. But that is a Greek story and we cannot change it.

Back to my question. Clearly the explanation in terms of Narcissism in weak because many of us know that we are not all that great looking. I personally do not like to look at my face — once a day when combing is enough for me.

That is why it surprises me. Why do people take so many selfie of their own face ?  May be sometimes a bit more of the physique even that I find surprising.

I start with the following explanation/conjecture  and let us see how it goes. Man is a fearful animal, We are always afraid — more so in India — and for good reasons. Now, one of the first criteria to be liked is not-to-be-feared. This seems particularly true with girls. No one is afraid of one’s own face. So, face passes the first test.

Second, we are keen to share  our activities, we want to be social and sociable.  What could be better than taking a selfie, upload in What’s Up and then either call or expect a call. So, it opens up the avenue for a pleasant conversation. This could be quite a pleasant pastime while walking or traveling in a bus or Metro.

In Metro rail, I find almost 50-60% of the young people are busy with their mobile. The picture is quite, I repeat quite, different from what I have observed in Paris or Tokyo or Rome. In those places, good number of people are found reading books or journals. It is particularly so in Paris Metro.

May be other cities in India are different, but I doubt it.

Reading is an essential activity for future growth. It is also pleasant.

We need a revolution — a revolution of different kind, to create a society where people read, like in France and Japan, and do not spend time on taking selfie, and where good, interesting books related to the present time are available.

Note that mobile companies and social media want you to take selfie. But that is not good for you.

Biman Bagchi, Bengaluru.


Are western universities really over-rated ? Where do we stand ?

January 24, 2018

Every year we see publication of the ranking of Universities with great fan fare. Every year it is almost the same list. Harvard, MIT, Oxbridge, Stanford etc etc holding the first ten positions. Even top 20-30 are predictable.

Our Indian Universities and Institutes do not make it even to top 100, or 200. Is that true ? Is this a correct measure ? What are these measures any way ?

We should not forget that India started building its universities only after 1950 or so. So, we do not have enough Nobel Prize etc.  . We really have little chance of competing — the ground is not fair.

Of late whenever I go to foreign universities, I do not get that feeling of excellence I used to get once. The feeling of awe is not there. True, when we visit CalTech, we think of Linus Pauling, Feynman, Nernst … but there does not seem to be any body of that caliber any more. The same goes for Harvard. Of course there has been a shift and new heroes have come.

May be I am missing something. What do these statistics of ranking really mean ?

As I am a (proud) theoretical physical chemist, I decided to carry out the following “theoretical” analysis. Let us start with the four most important critteria : Q_{F} = Quality of the Faculty, Q_{A} = Quality of alumni,  Q_{Peer} = Peer recognition, Q_{Publication} Citation analysis, Journal impact factor etc.

Then rank R is

R = CF * Q_{F} + CA * Q_{A} + CPR * C_{Peer} +  CPUB * Q_{Pub},  …..(1)

You can see the problem even with this simple description. Rank depends strongly on the relative weights  (the C-coefficients in the above equation) we give.  We easily see that CPUB, for example, is extremely biased — it is so much easier to publish in Nature, Science, PNAS, Cell etc if you are in a good University abroad and nearly impossible from our country. This means my Eq.1 is non-linear

R = CF * Q_{F} + CA * Q_{A} + CPR * C_{Peer} +  CPUB (R) * Q_{Pub},  ….(2)

In fact, all the coefficients above should depend on R. This actually explains the sigmadoil shape of the rank curve.

Therefore, our Universities and Institutes are in great disadvantage. History is also stacked against us.

But still, are we really that bad ? Not to be within 250 ? Let us take a critical look, especially for the sake of our own future.

Let me consider a department (say, Chemistry) in a  front line major Indian Institute. Let us do a thought experiment and go from Lab to Lab, office to office. What do we see ?

The first thing that strikes you is that much of the work going is on fashionable subjects : Nano, graphene, solar energy …. not many working on fundamental or unusual problems. This is more acute in chemistry, but also runs through other disciplines like physics.. This seems to suggest that we do not have our own programmes but we follow others, and work on problems that derive quick benefits.

Despite short term gains, this may not help in the long run because this approach hardly leads to good work with long term impact. Also, does not give us the prestige that comes with any first-time work.

Second, many of the recent Nobel prizes have gone to scientists who invented techniques and instruments. However, the prevailing culture in Indian science is to use purchased equipment  to explore  systems. But chance of discovering new phenomena by this approach is remote. Others are not stupid — people who invent equipment always have the first shot at discovering a new phenomenon.

Our penchant to buy expensive equipment and do measurements shall hardly give us great credits. I know that in most major Labs in the West, a constant effort goes into developing new techniques, to measure the things not been measured till to-date.

Third, intense discussions which are hallmarks of Western Science is still missing from academia in India, at least in most places.

But we should not digress too much from our main topic.

I guess one could summarize the present low ranking of Indian institutions  to historical reasons, to the intense competitions, to the manner in which the stakes are tilted heavily in favor of the great institutions, and to our own limitations. Note that excuses do not help.

We still have a long way to go before we catch up in a noticeable way. It is not easy to earn respect. You have to toil for it.

Biman Bagchi                                   24 January 2018


Others are working and doing hard jobs so that we can study and research

January 17, 2018

Every morning after I get up, I make myself my own special cup of tea (with ginger, cloves, lemon and black pepper), and then happily sit down to work with my computer. These days e-mails have become less important but my own writing takes precedence. In the mean time the maid arrives — sometimes before I leave the bed . In that case she cleans my tea-pot — a nice one purchased for me by son Kaushik — a glass one with funnel shaped jar and a container to hold the tea that sinks inside the jar. A great device.. Easy to clean and keeps the tea in the container fresh.

As I get to my work usually in a good mood, our maid goes on cleaning the house, and talks with me frequently in Kanada. A well-meaning person, she often shouts at me for forgetting to buy soaps (“Sopu”), my papya and melons., chides me for not finishing my fruits … But she never disturbs me otherwise. She even cleans the table, organizes the house … all these when I am working (if you can call writing work — the real work is being done by her !).

I now realize how much we owe to these people who work hard so that we are left alone. We — the so called intellectuals  — accept all the privileges as our birth-rights just because we have passed a few silly exams, can speak English , have gone to IITs or to Ivy leagues or what ever. Actually you do not have to do that well to enjoy the privileges. And we are hardly grateful for all that we receive, and many of us  hardly even take note.

Even our students enjoy this life of luxury. The PhD students in IISc. or in our IITs hardly do anything. The maximum they do is to wash their own clothes. They stay in a good room (most of them) and eat in the mess. May not be the food they want but sufficient to get by and stay healthy.

The bottom line is that we hardly do any the so-called menial work. There are people who are producing and cooking food for us, cleaning much of the hostel.  Students treat the hostel as an extension of home where also most Indian students (especially the male students) hardly do any work

We take all of these things for granted. I have become a bit aware of every help these days because I do many things myself.

How much do we owe to the society ? We complain all the time (in Indian lingo, “left and right”) about less salary, inadequate infra-structure, roads, even weather … We of course have every right to complain. My favorite complain is about pavements and roads in Malleswaram, Bangalore. Yesterday I was almost run over by a motor cycle who started on red signal and pedestrian signal was green. But he had to go … he had a very urgent important thing to do which was to stop near the liquor store 100 ft away.

Any way, I am still alive and that is the important thing. Professor Siddiqui was run down by a motor bike and he never recovered from the comma he went into subsequent to the ensuing fall.

But do we ever pause to look at the men and women, often quite young who serve us all around the year ! Serve us tea and coffee, clean and repair the road (albeit imperfectly!),  the cleaners and the janitors who keep our work place going …. even the secretaries who do so much for both faculty and students. We are too quick to complain and criticize but miserly in praise.

The  value of the silent work of the multitude of people (not reflected in our newspapers) was brought out by Rabindranath in a great poem “Ora kaj kare” meaning “They work silently” (I went for the meaning in translation). In this poem Rabindranath described how the contribution of these workers survives centuries after centuries while pomp and glory of mighty kings are short lived. A bit reminiscent of “Ozymandias” by Shelly — another great poem.

We take all these things for granted.

But students and we faculty should realize that all our work is made possible by the hard, often menial work of a great multitude who work silently, day after day.

But there is an unspoken deal. The deal is that you and we, the privileged class, are supposed to work to make the life of these people better. Therefore, our government is not wrong to demand that most of us should work hard on practical problems — not in the ivory tower of great ideas that brings individual laurels from abroad that we all crave for.

Let there be peace on earth and amongst ourselves but let us work hard.

Biman Bagchi                       17-01-2018

The Story of Levinthal Paradox

January 8, 2018

  It was an interesting part of my own scientific career that I should chronicle (and this is a good place) because this work seems to have found its way into many biology text books (Lehninger, Stryer …) and many reviews. Many people asked me how come I could do this work while I had no work experience whatsoever on biological problems before this work on LP. Also it makes an interesting story to read — I hope the readers would think so too. It also contains a few lessons for young students.

Cyril Levinthal wrote an interesting short note in 1968 — just one and half pages long. This short paper appeared just before protein folding really became a rage. In this short note Levinthal presented a whimsical calculation. He argued that in order for the protein molecule to “know” that it is in the most stable state (to fulfill Anfinsen’s  hypothesis that the native state is the most stable state) the protein must sample at least a small percentage of the states available to it. If a protein consists of 100 amino acids, and each amino acid is allowed three conformnational states, then the protein can have 3^100 states. If conformational transitions between these conformational states occur at a speed of ps^{-1}, then the protein would need astronomically large  time to search even a minuscule percentage of states. The estimates typically are in the range of 10^{30} years or so.

But real protein folds in microseconds to seconds time. How does a protein do it ? This is the paradox Levinthal pointed out in 1968.

Since this is related to Anfinsen’s hypothesis that the native state is the most stable state of the folded protein. Levinthal Paradox (LP) became an important topic of scientific discussions.

When I went to NIH on my sabbatical, I was not looking forward to working on any biophysical problems. I just went to my mentor, Robert Zwanzig, to learn again. We just finished an elaborate theory of solvation dynamics and dielectric relaxation and I also written my first paper on ionic conductivity, so I was quite pleased with these works that drew a lot of attention. I gave a departmental seminar at the Laboratort of Chemical Physics (popularly known as Building 5) on solvation dynamics which was attended by many, and both Attila Szabo and Bob Zwanzig liked the work. I thought I would continue along the line and climb to higher level with some help from the genius of Bob Zwanzig !

However, after reaching NIH, the very first few talks I heard were by  stalwarts in our field — Frank Stillinger, Shakhnovich, Angell — and all discussed the PF problem,  and all started with Levinthal Paradox. I found the talks a bit odd — with limited quantification. But I did not even know the names of the amino acids — not even what was a proline.

I tried to talk with great Zwanzig who dismissed me my saying “Soon you will know about proximal histidine, distal histidine …. I managed to survive without knowing the difference” Bob was Bob — what he could do was not for us less mortals.

So, out of my desperation, I went to our Lab Chief Bill Eaton and asked Bill , “Bill, where do you think I should start learning biology?” I dreaded reading the fat  Lehninger’s fat book.

Bill was working on a paper and was in pretty bad mood. He looked at me and said  “For Physicists like you, I would recommend to start with “What Mad Pursuit” by Francis Crick””.

I absorbed the double insult and went to library and took out Crick’s book like an obedient student and started reading it. Bob saw me reading the book, and told “Oh ! Reading Crick ? Very smart but  I did not get much from there”.

Okay — fine , I told myself, and continued reading because I wanted to do something on PF.

I used to take the bus T4 from Rockville to NIH (at Bethesda) every morning and used to go back via Metro. The bus ride used to comfortable as the bus used to take a route via George Washington Pk Way, so I could read those 25-30 minutes in total isolation.  When I started on 3rd Chapter with title “The Blind Watchmaker” — I did not expect much from the chapter, given the weird title of the chapter. But within a few paragraphs I was so absorbed that I missed NIH bus stop and had to come back from Tenley Town Metro station.

What made me excited was an example quoted in that Chapter which again was taken from Richard Dawkin’s book “Blind Watchmeker”. yes — the same name as the name of the Chpater in Francis Crick’s book/

So, as soon as I reached NIH I went to Building 10  where the Library was located and took out Richard Dawkin’s “Blind Watchmaker”. Fortunately for me, the book was written from the perspective of neo-Darwanian theory.

Why fortunate ? Because when I was in 9th grade (yes — only in 9th grade) one Sunday morning my father told us to delay our going out to play by an hour as he wanted to tell us something. It was kind of unusual as he never stopped us from playing. At 9 AM on that Sunday morning, he asked  my mother for a cup of tea and sat down with us on the big study table that used to adorn almost half of our living room.

From a large envelope he took out two completely new, shining Penguin books, entitled “Origin of Species by Natural Selection” and “Descent of Man.” I was impressed because my father always bought books for us but usually the inexpensive ones and mostly old books from College street (we were pretty poor). But these were clearly expensive ones !

Then for more than an hour he explained Darwin’s theory, and wrote points on a note book. At the end told us we shall again discuss next Sunday but we should try to read these two books ! I had hardly seen my father so passionate in teaching — I mentioned elsewhere that he was a great teacher (and a freedom fighter, a social worker, writer etc etc..). So, I did try to read those books, and even some others in latter years on Darwin’s theory.

So, you can imagine my delight and excitement when I started reading Richard Dawkins. As was also mentioned in Crick’s book “What Mad Pursuit” (3rd Chapter), Dawkins explains the occurrence of organized structures in nature through a whimsical example (“Me thinks it is like a weasel”). But let me first set the stage. in the late nineteenth century, a well-known theologist (I forgot the name) was attacking Darwin’s theory by pointing out the following fact. Say, you were walking in a dense forest and suddenly came across a beautiful watch. You picked it up, admired its craftsmanship, its beauty, and you assumed (correctly) that there must be a skillful “watch-maker”.  The theologist went on to assert that the symmetry and the beauty of the world around us was also due to a skillful “watch-maker.” Of course, the allusion was that this skillful watch-maker was God. Evolution could not create such beauty and symmetry in nature as we see around us.

Dawkins countered this logic by stating that yes, there is a watch-maker but this watch-maker is the “blind force of nature” which just drives the system to certain preferred structures. To make his point clear, Dawkins took the example of one line from a sonnet of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

Let us consider a monkey attempting to create that one line from Shakespear’s sonnet by randomly striking the keys of a type-writer. Now, “Me think it is like a weasel” contains 28 characters including 6 blanks. Now English language has 26 alphabets and U need to add one for blank — making it 27. So, there are (27)^(28) possibilities which is enormous, equal to 1.197. 10^(40). However, if U make the rule that the monkey once hits a correct alphabet in a position cannot change it any more, the monkey can write the line in about 2000 attempts !

As soon as I read this work by Dawkins, I had that the excitement that comes with sudden enlightenment or understanding. I immediately knew it contained the clue to our understanding of protein folding, and that what Dawkins described was a random search which was aided by certain energy minimization criteria.

I again ran to Building 10, this time to get the original note of Levinthal because surprisingly no body in Building 5 had seen the original paper. It was in a journal which was not kept in active space but I could extract a print copy from a microfiche — that was the advantage of being at NIH. I read it immediately to confirm my idea.

So, in the same afternoon I walked into Attila Szabo’s office (he has an office in basement in a corner of building 5 — the corner and basement was because he used to smoke.  I described on board my idea of protein folding. I actually drew concentric circles such that the smallest one was the native state and the outermost was the extended, unfolded state and declared that it was a problem of multi-dimensional reaction-diffusion model that Attila was already working on and made enormous contribution to.the area.

Attila tuned down my model of concentric circles ro a box that could contain 0 or 1. We tried to solve it but stopped in the evening. Next morning I mentioned the model to Bob Zwanzig — he looked kind of perplexed at first with my idea but was quick to catch on it. I went to my office after discussion with Bob and was sure that I was onto something, and first wrote a computer programme to verify Dawkin’s example, and it worked out just as Dawkins wrote — a couple of thousand attempts with the bias to recover the sonnet.

It took me time to realize that the problem can be described by considering the total number of correctly placed alphabets as a collective order parameter. All of us of course realized immediately that the probability of correct to incorrect is determined by the free energy difference between the two states.

I have since long lost the notes of this work.  It took just a couple of days  for both Attila and Bob to obtain the final solution, each in his own way — I do not remember who got there first, except that there was a bit of unpleasantness at this stage of collaboration which caused a lot of distress to me.

But later I realized that both Attila and Bob understood the importance of the work — more than I did as I was completely new. The paper was mostly written by Bob, and I insisted on having “Me think it is like a weasel” as the main approach to the paper so that we can connect Darwin’s theory, Shakespeare and protein folding and Levinthal paradox.  That reflected in the final form appeared in PNAS.

I am still very happy with the connection I could establish. But I am sad that I did not pursue the more general model in terms of concentric circles where each circle was connected to the one up and below by rate constants. This could then have described the folding funnel with ruggedness.

Actually my model was partly motivated by the model of hierarchical relaxation proposed in 1984 by Phil Anderson and coworkers.

Well, here is the almost complete account of the story that has drawn a lot of attention. Just like Levinthal’s, our paper was also short.

There is a lesson in this for young students. Do read interesting path breaking works in science. You never know when it would lead to break-throughs. Second, I should not have left my initial more generalized model because what I had was the folding funnel –AS ALREADY MENTIONED– with decreasing diameter of the concentric circles, and rates of exchange.So, stay with your ideas, for sometime at least.


 1. ZWANZIG, SZABO, BAGCHI, PNAS (1992).  One full chapter of Lupert Stryer’s Biochemistry book was based on this work in 4-6th Edition. I have not checked the later ones. Alsdo, Lehninger had a long discussion. Both used “Me think it is like a weasel”.

2. L. MARTINEX, J. Chem. Educ.201491 (11), pp 1918–1923. A nice modern review on LP. You should read it.


Biman Bagchi

Silence is Golden when eating (fish) but not in doing science research

December 31, 2017

As every Bengali knows that when eating a sweet/fresh water fish, you got to concentrate, and resist from talking which is hard for a Bengali. It would be a good statistics to know how many Bengali get stuck with a fish bone in their throat every day (or night). I would guess percentage is non-negligible and number is very large. For those of you do not have this experience, let me tell you that it is very painful to have a narrow think fish-bone stuck in your throat. For sometime, till the bone is out or swallowed, the whole world collapses around you and you can think of nothing but of that stupid small bone stuck in your throat, with the fear that your life is soon going to end (if the pain is severe).

So, every experienced campaigner knows to keep quiet while eating fish. Actually in Indian custom you are not supposed to speak while you are eating. Period. You are also not supposed to talk in front of adults if you are considered young which in the eye of the older people any body below 30 years or so. I found that my father, even at 50 , was quite respectful to older people. His manner of speaking used to change.

It does not help keeping quiet in discussions, in group meetings and/or in seminars. If you have anything to say or ask, just speak out and ask.

In India students are taught that asking adults questions, especially penetrating questions,  is insolence, and being quiet is good behavior that pays in the long run. It becomes a habit for students. But this hurts in research. Students often do not even realize when to ask, creating a distance between the adviser and himself — causing great damage. Sometimes it becomes too late.

Accurate expression, being articulate, communication are important life-skills in science. Gone are the days where a student could work alone in the Lab getting great results but keep quiet.

This is clearly a cultural issue. And our culture is at odds with science. In India we are taught (sternly) both at schools and home not to contradict adults, not to argue. These are regarded as bad behavior. A “good boy” is supposed to be docile and polite.

Unfortunately science is neither docile nor polite. This is the area of people who thinks and talks and contradicts. In his famous Dublin Lectures (1941) which was later made into the famous book “What is life?”, Erwin Schroedinger said “If somebody had never contradicted himself, he has not thought at all.”  (paraphrased — may be quotes should be off) Not only do we need to contradict others but also ourselves. This is the area of free thinking. We better argue and contradict.

But not always in India, especially not in front of the boss —whoever the boss may be.

One is often afraid. I had a few students who were very afraid when discussing. In each case I asked and found out that there was a “dominant, fearful”  person behind the fear — one case it was the maternal uncle, once it was the father, in some cases the teachers … but home was the major source to instill the fear.

I myself had an uncle who was a school teacher and who was quite proud that students were very afraid of him.  Good bye Science !!

 No doubt our Rabindranath was so much against traditional schooling and against any form of capital punishment. He got some punishment  himself at schools.

I myself was beaten black and blue by teachers. I think that my present persistent back-pain is due to the tremendous amount of beating I took in my Uttarpara Govt School. Thank God my father was not given to beating and also ignored all the complaints from school.

It is worthwhile to note that one can never make interesting stories with so-called goody goody boys. Did U notice that all our beloved characters like Saratchndra’s Indranath (from Novel Shrikantho), RK Narayan’s Swamy (Malgudi Days) are naughty boys …. ?

I find some change of late. Students have started asking questions. They are not so goody goody. Good for Indian science.

 However, making mistakes is out of bound — in calculations and experiments.  If you make a mistake, find it out yourself and correct and report back to your adviser. Do not ever try to justify your mistake.

It is okay to make mistake but need to go back and correct it yourself and be bold to report them. Others respect for you shall increase, but you of course need to be bold.

Actually not asking questions is a pretty bad habit for students. Not just in seminars and discussions, but also to your advisers.

So, go ahead, ask questions, give speakers and colleagues hard time — good for all of you.

 Biman Bagchi, IISc                                   31-12-2017

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls ; it tolls for thee”

December 25, 2017

Today is Christmas.  I was wondering what’s the primary difference between such religious leaders and the leaders we often see around us.

One major difference is that religious leaders were seldom egotistical. Whether Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhamso …. were not egotistical at all. They shunned pomp and lived a simple life. But such leaders have become so very rare that we long for them.

Actually egotistical, success-obsessed persons are never destined to be happy.   But do they care for peace and happiness at all ?

Egotistical people are in a way unfortunate children of the universe ! They create a small world (or hole) for themselves and live in that tiny world — however big that might seem from outside. Wherever they go, whatever they do — they take their world with them.

In this context one can remember the beautiful prose by John Donne, written in 1624,

 “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Donne is still  admired by his quiet sober voice, his love of humanity.

People, and the World,  have become so different that it is hard to completely follow Donne’s prescription of humanly love, but we these days see such huge disparity, disregard for human life that one longs for Donne’s world.

In a strange way we have always admired egotistical people as they come across as strong leaders. Their disregard for human life and human values are regarded as their strength, like Hitler, Stalin and others before and after. They were and are heroes in their time, although posterity usually gives them their due place.

But the egotistical people are seldom happy and peaceful themselves. But as already stated, one can  argue that they do not care for peace and happiness but they want glory and victory, and power.

In Rabindranath’s poem on Gandhari of  Mahabhrata, this was clearly stated by Duryodhana to Dhritharastra : “Small happiness does not satisfy a Khastrya … I want victory”.

We have seen leaders who are always quarreling, criticizing … which are all probably part of life for them.

But it gets so tiring for us … only newspapers people seem to thrive on such people.

But it is true that the quality of a leader depends on the followers. So we all are partly responsible for the rot we see around us.

I end this Blog with the well-remembered quote by Lao Tzu :

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”


Biman Bagchi                    25-12-2017

Quality of Mind and Maturity : Of a scientist (or, any body).

December 14, 2017

These days I often think of a scientist in terms of his/her “Quality of Mind” And Maturity. In fact,  immaturity and insatiable drive (often correlated)  in  scientist are glorified these days, and quality of mind is ignored..

These could be terribly wrong.  A good mind if it comes with maturity, then, in the long run,  could play a decisive role. Students should be aware.

I was started on this line of thinking by my main mentor Robert Zwanzig.  On two occasions, separated by seven years, he made the same  remark about two scientists by stating that “he has a good mind”. As Bob is no more, I can name the two scientists : One is James (Casey) T Hynes and the other one is Michael Klein. the two stalwarts in our field.

I need to state that on both the occasions I was spending  a year with Bob, and on both the occasions we discussed many scientists who visited the Institutes and whom I met in conferences. That is, the number of people we discussed was not small — covered almost every body in our area of Theoretical Physical Chemistry, and many in Physics and Physical Chemistry/Chemical Physics.

Let me try to elaborate on Zwanzig’s comment, although I should admit that I was kind of surprised by his remark, both the times. Strangely, I did not ask him to elaborate — Bob was a man of short temper, and sometimes asking about points that he considered obvious was the trigger we all wanted to avoid.

As the remarks were almost religious, I tried to understand. What could  “good mind” mean in science ? I thought it was a combination of  mental ability to think clearly, (clarity of thinking — not getting muddled),  good taste in problems … As I know both the two scientists mentioned, it seems that a careful and thoughtful  nature in science was also implied.

Also both the scientists are quite kind and considerate human beings. I have hardly seen immaturity in them (cannot say “never” though!)

I also have noticed that western science students are far more mature than our students in India. They behave properly and keep confidence. I remember that in Chicago during late nights we often made fun of our Professors — a favorite pastime —  but never ever anything went back to the upper level.

In India, all you need to make one joke, and it spreads like fire. Every comment immediately gets reported. As if we are teenagers, playing games. But neither Science nor life is a game. You better be dead serious, and also learn to be kind — not vicious!

This is where we need people with “good mind”. They play important role in creating an ambiance where science can foster. These are people who often go around doing their work quietly, listen to others silently. In addition to a sharp mind, they have mustered (or born with) that rare quality of kindness and composure so rare in India. But our own scriptures again and again recommended composure and discreteness. And Judgment.

I wrote about it once before, but now I understand and relate this to the quality of mind. A mind of high quality never bothers about small things that unavoidably go around us, out of instantaneous frustrations and anger — but these are not remembered even a minute latter and then probably forgets. In a healthy atmosphere, these are absorbed, might create a little ripple that dies down in a short while.

Back to the quality of mind. I am so fond of Sherlock Holmes and his antiques — we all are !  He was not only extremely sharp but also had a kindness that Watson spoke of a few times. Holmes was also not petty. That was another charm of his character.

To begin with,  let us remember : “There are Better Things (Science, Literature, Music, Movies ….)  to Talk About Than Other People (and put a stop to Gossip).

This advisory is particularly addressed to  students and young researchers.

Cheers and Good Luck !


Biman Bagchi,




Why India failed to produce many great scientists after 1950 but succeeded handsomely in arts and literature

December 4, 2017

[I put forward reasons why we failed to produce great scientists and my explanation is somewhat different. Kindly please read on ……]

It is said that mathematicians, musicians and chess players are born — not made. Probably not fully true these days in the sense that just being born with the genetic make-up to be a great mathematician does not mean that you shall succeed in that difficult field. Chess players need extensive training, so do musicians. The simple days of “wine and roses” seem to have disappeared for ever. Nothing seems easy any more.

Sometimes  I feel sorry for younger generation — especially for those who are sincere and have been able to retain some degree of idealism, although as Stfan Zweig wrote in his famous novel “Beware of Pity”, we do not have any moral right to feel sorry for any body.  But let us move on !

How about scientists ? Physicists, chemists and biologists ? We are told that R.B. Woodward and Linus Pauling could have become anything they wanted but they chose to become chemists. Good for us — otherwise we would not have synthesis  of  amazing array of life saving drugs that Woodward synthesized.  Bob Woodward chose to become a synthetic organic chemist because of a personal reason. The same is said about Sir CV Raman who excelled in his job on finance but quit to become a physicist.

Many of the scientists were brilliant people. they could have been easily statesmen, lawyers, engineers etc.

I guess we all agree that our film directors, writers and actors combined together to produce some of the best movies that world has seen. I  could name a large number that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Western or Hollywood movies — especially between 1950-1980 — the golden period of Indian movies. We also had many good writers, dancers and artistes. Our actors and actresses were second to none. We, so-called English educated snob Indians underestimate our artistes to great extent, with our years and eyes glued to Hollywood movies but many artistes  from Bombay talkies, South India and Bengal … were great.

The situation certainly is less glamorous in science. The reason is always given that our scientists lack infra-structure. This was certainly true when we started and probably true even now, although We tend to ignore the fact that Sir JC Bose, Sir C V Raman and many other experimentalists reached great heights. In theory of course we had giants like SN Bose, Meghnad saha and many others.

The situation of funding and infra-structure in terms of expensive instruments have increased tremendously in the last 20 years. However, I have not heard of any epoch making discoveries — neither in theory nor in experiment– of the type that you should hear when you go abroad.  Note that a few papers in Nature and Science and a few foreign laurels do not qualify for outstanding work in science. The work must stand the test of time, must create a following. I am yet to see any.

On the other hand, Indian presence in the world of movies, dancing, music is quite formidable, at least in places like France or in the Universities of USA where I repeatedly watched movies of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and movies like Arth, Fire …… There are regular performances by Indian musicians, talk of Indian instruments like Midangam, Sitar …..

So, what happened? Why not in science ?

My life long experience at IISc allows me to make a few remarks. First and foremost, we by and large do not have the taste necessary to do very good/great science. We have learned modern science from the West, but unlike Japan, we did not assimilate it.

We follow Western Science too closely. We repeat (with extra additions) what ever they do abroad. Moreover, we do not think that many time great ideas start with a small  seed which may appear to be simple and naive but could be  original and different. We do not have respect for original ideas. I myself have one such experience. We did a work that came from no where on water around biomolecules. Small work. I did not claim anything great. I called such water as “Biological Water”.

It was ridiculed, but now this had become a major field of research with many famous people working and worked on this. But from my side, I gave up working on it because here at IISc., in my own Institute and Department, people made fun of it. Although Graham Fleming termed it “a beautiful piece of work”, Ahmed Zewail told me “a most remarkable paper” etc etc. Now in India and abroad many researchers are working on this  but ……

Forget this incident — I am not important, not alone …. but this is the mind set ….

In Bengali we have a saying “Goder upor Binshphora” which  essentially means pain on top of pain. Now Citation and number of papers have added this pain to our already medicare science .. No doubt Mark Twain stated “There are two kinds of lies : Simple lies and statistics.”

But how come our artistes, dancers, writers, actors … became so successful ? So creative ? The secret lies in their origin/source of creativity which was/is rooted in their own country, their own culture and society and own language …. the ideas came from within — NOT OUTSIDE. The rewards also came from within — not outside. And we all know who is good and who is bad amongst us …. no confusion. So, you cannot fool people by showing numbers ! Also in arts we can often fathom the origin of creativity, in writing and music … we can trace back to some of our great masters or epics.

But is there then no hope for great science from us ? I am not too optimistic at this point. But situation need to change. Again, look at Japan. How wonderfully they have done and are doing. Such a small country, already won about 30 Nobels or so …….

Even though my Blog is negative, it is good to know the truth, especially for young people.  Truth can be bitter but it does not receive (Rabindranath). I think our generation knows well that despite all the noise, nothing really great has been achieved.

So ?

I have no solution, but we do need to identify our own problems or the problems that can be our own — like Japan has been able to do.  We do need sincere and honest people — not the so called humbugs. But how to do that ? In a science society increasingly driven by ambition of power, position and awards, how do we/you protect the sincere ones who cannot brag, who cannot sale abashedly, who are not clever and who do not publish in tons ?

One thing I can tell : Good work is not easy, and great work is exceedingly hard. This aspect was discussed by Prof. Chandrasekhar in his biographical book “Chandra.” He mentioned that many Indian scientists thought that good work could be done based on inspiration and creativity alone.  Not true. You need focused and deliberate hard work. You need to spend many days and nights. Only then you start seeing a dim light.

One thing is certain. Research is not for every body. But those who can persevere and succeed, even in small measure (in the scale of greatness, and not in papers), they can be certain of great joy, something our ancestors talked about and called it “Bhumananda”.

I wish that a few of you can succeed !


Biman Bagchi




“Why do we choose to crawl when asked only to bend ?”

November 23, 2017

 [This is another blog based on my personal experiences, and while  it expresses strong sentiments, it has  nothing to do with racism or nationalism.]

Being in administration has certain privileges, and even  entertainments.  The good thing is that you get to observe human nature at close quarters, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the bad thing is to find the futileness of efforts to help people, and also the self-centredness of people — the interplay between ego and logic …

I cannot talk too much about these things — they would need to wait. But …………

In India I see an episode to repeat itself endlessly. My father was fond of saying “when asked to bend, we often crawl”. He first  made this remark in the context of Indians stooping to low levels in front of an Englishman. Even after the British has left, the trend continues. I see this even in my own ex-students who glue themselves to their foreign post-doc (read, white) professors neglecting me and others.

Recently this was commented on by one of my close Indian colleagues who felt belittled in Indian conferences where students run after “white” professors.

Note that this is not racism — I have thinking far away from it. It is servileness — the characteristics of a slave.

We see this also in Indian science and society, and of course politics. I have coined a poem to describe the situation :

“One man to rule them all

one man to find them

one man to bring them all,

and in the narrow-ness bind them”.


Of course it is a copy — a copy from Tolkien’s well-known starting poem of the “Lord of the Rings” — my all time favorite — the book — not the movies. I have changed according to my present blog.

In the “Lord of the Rings” — the ring lowered the men who got the rings — banished them into the world of a twilight zone — neither living nor dead. Why they opted for the ring in the first place?

The Dark Lord resided in the Land of Murdar “where the shadows lie”. It seemed a pretty dark, horrible place. Why would men live there ? It was of course symbolic. If I understand the symbolism correctly, the meanings are pretty nasty.

These men slaved to the One Ring were small kings — greed for power, for immortality …?

Here we see a remake of the same thing — again the greed and ambition of small men. But probably our servile-ness plays the main role.

I do not see the trend to go away soon — perhaps it is in our weak character  — my father was fairly convinced of it even though he himself was a freedom fighter and a strong person. But note not everybody is servile but enough in numbers to make you deeply worry.

Why I did not see this syndrome much in the USA ? Clearly it is there to some extent but probably does not work that well as it does here.

In Academic you are supposed to be free, enjoy the intellectual freedom. May be the truth lies there — deep down.

In the mean time, pointer to young students. Excel to escape this servile syndrome that might otherwise surround you.


Biman Bagchi