Bhagavadgita in IIT

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

It seems that in a thermodynamics class at IIT Kanpur, the teacher referred to the Bhagavadgita — a reversible process is apparently what the book had in mind when it said `do your work without any hope of benefit’. Shouldn’t that be an irreversible process?

Women are property

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

After the khap panchayats, it was the turn of the Karnataka high court to demand an amendment in the Hindu Marriage act. Both demands are based on the belief that women cannot decide what is good for themselves, and need to be guided by their elders. To be precise, the High Court sets an age limit of 21 after which women may be allowed to choose their partners, but “Parents should choose the boy for a girl aged below 21”. So For women between 18 and 21, the Karnataka High Court views them in the same way as khap panchayats, namely the property of their `parents’ or `elders’. (They are `property’ because they may be given away, not because they are to be protected, although the latter one is the argument given by both parties.)

For the specific case mentioned in the news report, the girl in question was reported missing some days before she turned 18 and she turned up after she turned 18 and got married (so that it would not be an underage marriage). It strikes me that a case of kidnapping could have been established without too much difficulty as she went away with the accused before she was 18. Surely there are statutory provisions for this in criminal law, without requiring amendments in the apparently unrelated marriage laws?

Ramdev: Wronged is not Right

June 5, 2011 Leave a comment

What the government did to Baba Ramdev is wrong. But that does not make him, or his demands, right. While it is difficult to maintain a nuanced view in the middle of such high drama, I hope the civil society will remember that it is the nuances that makes a democracy.

Corrupting the movement

June 2, 2011 Leave a comment

The day opened to a very strange piece of news: the megastar yogastar Baba Ramdev has refused to call off his `fast unto death’ on the issue of black money. Ok, it’s not very strange if we simply view this as a publicity stunt. But is it only for publicity or does he have deeper reasons for this fast? Some think that he is doing this at the behest of his political masters to derail the Jan Lokpal Bill. I think the bill is a bad idea, and I think Ramdev has other, more personal reasons to go on this fast. The trusts that he is associated with are enormously wealthy, and little is known about the source of their income, or the source of income of people who donate to these trusts. One politician did ask for an investigation into the source of his assets, but nothing else has been heard about it since. My feeling is that Ramdev is trying to establish himself as a leader of the anti-corruption lobby in order to avoid any serious charge of corruption for himself or his financial backers. Right now, any investigation into his amassed wealth, or even of his followers, can be projected as an underhanded scheme by the government to undermine his credibility. So all his financial dealings remain unseen by the probing eyes of the Income Tax department — and I think he is only the face of an organisation, not the brains — there are others behind the financial dealings of his organization.

Someone really should go on a fast unto death for investigating the finances of Ramdev.

UGC Faculty recharge programme: much ado about nothing

May 28, 2011 35 comments

I was going to title this post `What were they thinking?’ but then decided against that because I could use that title so often that it should really be a category or a tag.

The UGC has come out with a programme called the Faculty Recharge Programme, which was advertised in national newspapers yesterday, and has appeared on a dedicated website here. They plan to appoint assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology and `Engineering and Earth Sciences’. The new appointees are expected to be at the forefront of research, and be willing to teach six hours a week — presumably at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels. The expressed hope is that this will raise the level of scientific research at the universities with the side effect of attracting students to a career of research.

In order to attract `talent, the new appointees are promised salary at par with the central universities no matter where they are. But they can be posted at any university in the country, although they do say that the location of the new faculty will be through `harmonization of their own preference, response of the host Institution and availability of infrastructure’.

On the face of it, this sounds like the seed of a new IES — Indian Educational Service, which was originally instituted during British rule (J.C. Bose, P.C.Ray and P.C.Mahalanobis had been members), but is this really going to attract people?

What I find disturbing is the sentence Initial appointments at each level shall be for a period of 5 years, extendible through peer evaluation by successive 5-year terms. This is understandable for Assistant Professors, who are at the beginning of their careers, but Associate Professors and Professors are going to be people who are required to have done a reasonable amount of research and publish regularly, so these people already hold jobs at research institutions or at teaching institutions with some freedom to do research. But those jobs are permanent jobs, not five year positions. And they are also likely to be of an age where stability is important. They are likely to have families, who are settled down, or settling down, working, going to school, wherever they are. So why will they up everything and (very likely) go to a different part of the country, in a job which,   following a peer review, […] may be terminated, extended or elevated to the next higher level. Associate professors have a chance of being `elevated’ to the next higher level, but professors do not have even that. So why would anyone sensible, anyone who is doing some research and some teaching, be interested in a Professor’s position?

Any of the research laboratories pay allowances etc at the same rates as the central universities, and at the levels corresponding to associate professor and professor, pretty much the same salary. People already at universities, even if they are not central universities, get the same salaries, possibly with some lower allowances. But universities give their faculty time to do research, and the stability of a permanent job. There is no real incentive for any of these people to move to a five-year position, which is very likely in a different part of the country.

Then the only people who will apply for these positions are those in colleges where they are unable to do good research, or people in post-doc positions. While there are admittedly some people in colleges who could do better research at universities than what they are doing now, such people are not many in number. And even then, would they opt for the instability of a five-year position, unless they are at the very beginning of their career?

If they really want good people to join, they should remove the 5 year stipulation, at least from the higher positions. Otherwise this service will be filled with only those who cannot get a permanent university/research institute position.

IITs not world class — but just how good are they?

May 24, 2011 Leave a comment

`IIT faculty are not world class’  said Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment. Ramesh, himself an IIT graduate, also mentioned the IIMs together with the IITs, and his  lament was about the quality of research done at these places. He believes that the IITs do not do good quality research, and thus does not attract the best people.

I decided to take a quick look at the research record of the IITs, as measured by the Web of Science (subscription required). The way I did it was to search for Kharagpur in the Address box, then refine it by Institutional Affiliation to the IIT, and break the search in two parts, one for 1986-2000 and the other for 2001-2011.

I was slightly surprised by the results — about 4500 papers for the first lot, and 9500 papers for the second lot. So the number of papers has doubled. The citation count was about 24k? for the first lot and 37k? for the second lot. And the h-index for each lot is about 60. This was somewhat higher than I was expecting, but perhaps not that high, given that IIT Kharagpur has about 470 members of faculty — so 9500 in 10 years is about 2 per faculty per year, an acceptable number. But I am not sure how to interpret the number of citations or the h-index. I would have expected somewhat lower figures for a `bad’ research institute of this size and age, so perhaps it’s not that bad. But how good is it?

Perhaps I’ll do the same search for the other `old’ IITs and try to find some meaning in the figures.

With all the caveats about indices, of course.

New way of doing physics

May 21, 2011 Leave a comment

There is a new way of doing physics. It involves doing no calculations and making no predictions. At least not in the way of what generations of physicists have been taught as calculations or predictions. It involves intermixing various phrases from physics and philosophy of science, and reaching the inevitable conclusion that while numerous predictions can be made in principle, not one specific prediction can be made at this time.

To be fair, this is not an entirely new phenomenon, the `foundations of quantum mechanics’ people have been writing such papers every now and then. On the other hand, string theory and supersymmetry have been making predictions from the very beginning, but not one of the specific predictions has been observed, leading to the observable scale of these predictions being pushed to higher and higher energies. Now with the LHC producing voluminous data showing that there is nothing at low energies except the Standard Model (and maybe not even that, if the Higgs fails to show up), more and more people form the `currently unobservable predictions’ camp are moving into the `unspecific predictions’ camp.

The latest paper of this sorry genre is discussed here and here.