Pushpa Bhargava, Mentor and Friend

152When I came to the University of Hyderabad in 2011, one of the first people I called upon was PMB, Pushpa Mittra Bhargava. Someone I had known in one or the other capacity since 1983, my most recent interaction with him then had been at a book release at the IIC, when my colleague at JNU, Prof. Bipan Chandra had asked me to be one of the speakers at the NBT release of PMB’s book Angels, Devils, and Science. I’ve forgotten now precisely what I said, but given my preoccupations at that time, I would have spoken of Kosambi, and Bernal, both rationalists who would have appreciated the argumentative Bhargava.

PMB was nothing if he was not complex. Fiercely loved by some of my friends, he was also as disliked by some others. He was outspoken, unapologetic, opinionated, he could be dismissive of others and very full of himself, but he was also always knowledgeable, erudite, and above all, genuine. By the time I got to know him, when he had more time to spend, it must also be admitted, he was already in his late 70’s. In 1983, though, he had invited me to CCMB to give a seminar, and I remember his interest at that time was on Manfred Eigen’s hypothesis on the origin of life, and whether something like life might have just happened by chance in the chaos of early Earth. From that early interaction, a scientific collaboration grew between Somdatta Sinha, staff member at CCMB and myself, resulting in three journal articles, and more importantly, a lifelong friendship (it helps also that we share a birthdate) that has outlived spouses and geographical dislocations. We wrote an article that has appeared today in The Wire, and I quote from it below, with permission.

Pushpa Mittra Bhargava – a.k.a. PMB – was larger than life. His flamboyance was multidimensional, from the striking printed bush-shirts he was very often seen wearing, to the scientific friends and colleagues he cultivated, to the remarkable institution that he built and causes he espoused. Never one to shy away from controversy, he was one of the most outspoken public scientists in the country, and one who stood his ground on political as well as scientific fronts. There have been few like him in terms of his personal courage, and fewer still who were as unafraid to be vocal on issues that challenged his personal convictions.

PMB, born in Ajmer in 1928, was educated in Lucknow. He obtained his PhD from Lucknow University in 1949 and shortly thereafter moved to Hyderabad, to work at the CSIR’s Regional Research Laboratory (RRL) as an organic chemist. Although he spent a few years in the US and in England, he remained a Hyderabadi for the rest of his life, and Hyderabad is where both of us got to know him more closely, although at different stages of our lives.

Like few other chemists in the country in the 1950s and 1960s, PMB was greatly taken up by the ‘molecular’ approach to biology. He was an evangelist, and as students we recall his efforts in the early 1970s in persuading the faculty and students of leading chemistry departments in the country to look into the then-nascent field of molecular biology. He campaigned with great energy for setting up the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), first within RRL Hyderabad (now called the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology) in 1977.

Although a separate campus was not established for the institute until the mid 1980s, he was able to attract some outstanding talent to CCMB as well as some stellar visitors – James Watson and Francis Crick among them. From its inception, the CCMB had a distinctive character, marked by a fresh and distinctly innovative approach. It was always a very special type of laboratory within the CSIR. PMB’s vision was evident on all scales, from the type of building to the art in the corridors, the groups that were formed and the problems that were studied.

In turn, two very distinctive features of PMB and his approach to institution building are worth noting. The first is the sense of aesthetics, his ability to integrate artistic sensibility into the work environment, something he shared with Homi Bhabha and C.V. Raman. Indeed, he paid close attention to the details of design and he prioritised aesthetics and functionality over all else, be it the CCMB or his own residential quarters.

The second was his belief in the need for scientists to speak up for the cause of science, and the need for public intellectuals to engage on contemporary issues in forums that were appropriate. He ensured that CCMB would have occasions to invite the common people to come see what science was being done there, but he would also make the lectures by leading scientists available to the public at large. He believed that it was the duty of scientists to fellow citizens to explain and encourage them to get excited by science, and think scientifically.

From the early 1980s to this day, thousands of school and college students and their parents, and countless others, would visit CCMB and learn from the faculty and students there as to what work was going on. Another of his passions was MARCH (Medically Aware and Responsible Citizens of Hyderabad), an organisation that he cofounded and which would meet every month to discuss some issue or other pertaining to public health. Given his sensibilities, these would be current and he would also get some of the leading experts to come and talk.

Of course, the cause of public engagement could take extreme forms. In 2015, he returned his Padma Bhushan (awarded to him in 1986) to the Government of India as a protest against the government’s attack on rationalism, reasoning and science. Years earlier, in 1994, he had resigned from the fellowship of the science academies of India for their lack of opposition to governmental plans to introduce astrology into university curricula. He spoke out against many issues, such as homoeopathy, GM crops, irrational beliefs and superstitions, pseudoscience and the lack of scientific temper, and about which there are numerous reports in the media. He responded to national issues with conviction and inevitably made enemies for his strong views and actions.

But what remain are indelible impressions of PMB the man. Both of us were associated with and influenced, in different ways, by him over a long period of time. Oddly enough, it was his intellectual curiosity that stimulated our academic collaboration, starting with an invitation to RRL to speak at the CCMB in 1983. At that time, SS had just joined CCMB as a young faculty member: fresh from JNU and working in an area of biology most people were unfamiliar with, and always ready to question the ‘administration’s decisions’.

PMB would listen patiently. Faculty meetings encouraged long discussions, dissent, arguments over institutional issues – and all this came largely from the sense of belonging that he instilled in the staff. Hugely nationalistic, in a way that was appropriate at that period of time, PMB would ask, “Why can we not do this work here?” of one or the other scientific problem. Keenly aware of trends in world science, he encouraged faculty to think of difficult and completely new problems that could have applications to society. He had the ability to find excellence and innovative ideas in people, independent of their rank or academic pedigree.

Regular group meetings with scientific literature reviews, a steady stream of national and international visitors whom the young faculty and PhD students always met, implementing a full technical group to support biologists with instrumentation issues, setting up a fully participatory and shared work atmosphere, and, most importantly, making young students and faculty feel the aura of basic science and giving the confidence of wanting to do interesting and difficult work, was PMB’s seminal contribution to the next generation of students and faculty.

There were also aspects of PMB that were difficult to deal with. Views that diverged widely from his were unsustainable. Those who could not convince him of their viewpoint either had to concur or leave. He could be arrogant, on many issues he was mistaken or inconsistent, and he could often seem autocratic and dogmatic. He had his blind spots. But for all his strong opinions, he had a commitment to quality, and in the end this is essential to build anything that will last.eminent-scientist-pm-bhargava

And PMB was much more than even this. To people around him – students, young faculty, the lab-boys, gardeners, drivers, people who managed the instruments, air-conditioning, guesthouse and canteen, and others – he was intensely personal. Cutting across hierarchies, he was one of them, their own PMB. He made everybody feel that working together towards excellence in all spheres is the way to excel. CCMB was not only known for its science but also its cleanliness, beauty, reliably excellent facilities and the ability to have the scientific faculty, administration, engineering, stores and purchase, gardening and hospitality services work together smoothly, like a well-oiled machine.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that all this happened largely due to the contagious enthusiasm that PMB radiated. He was always there. This was a new approach to the directorial style, one that was uncommon in those days (and even now). He knew everybody by name and made it his job to know each person’s concerns. He made lab rules such that anybody could work at any time of day and night, but in a way that safety was never compromised. Support to all employees to be dropped back home at night after work, or if they were stuck in any emergency condition anywhere in India, and interactions allowing free discussions – these were all hallmarks of making one feel ‘at home’ in the workplace.

UntitledHe was one of the finest institution-builders in India as he could integrate the Indian culture of togetherness with the western culture of hard work. Several people who went on from CCMB to other institutions have tried to replicate such an ethos. So have several others who have seen it work so effectively at the CCMB. Beyond the flamboyance and everything else, PMB was a great inspiration. A friend and guide to many, his direct and indirect influence on Indian science and scientific culture will be lasting.

1917. It was a Very Good Year.

thWhat Einstein said of Mahatma Gandhi, that generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever, in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth, is more than applicable to Einstein himself. From 2005 – declared by the United Nations as the World Year of Physics, to celebrate the centenary of Einstein’s annus mirabilis – onward, there have been many occasions to mark one hundred years of one or the other incredible contribution of his.  For Einstein, many years were very good indeed.

UntitledWhat makes 1917 special in some ways is the appearance of three other papers, each unrelated to the other (as the three of 1905) and which altered the fields that they touched upon. It would well have been called another annus mirabilis, had not 1905 already happened.

Early on in Volume 6 of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein titled The Berlin Years: Writings, 1914-1917, his “Inaugural Lecture”, delivered upon his election to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, he alludes to the soon-to-be-presented papers on his General Theory of Relativity, saying “We have determined that inductive physics has questions for deductive physics and vice versa; and eliciting the answers will require the application of our utmost efforts. May we, by means of united efforts, soon succeed in advancing toward conclusive progress.” That conclusive progress was to appear in the journal Annalen der Physik in May 1916, entitled “Die Grundlage der Relativitätstheorie” (On the Theory of General Relativity). But that was 1916.

The first of 1917’s three gems was On the Quantum Theory of Radiation, wherein he  came up with stimulated emission and laid the foundations of laser physics. The second was Cosmological Considerations in the General Theory of Relativity, in which he set the foundations of modern cosmology.

UntitledAnd the third. On May 11, 1917, Einstein presented a paper to the German Physical Society,  and this was published on the 30th of the same month, in the journal Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. Verhandlungen,  19, 82-92 (1917). Titled On the Quantum Theorem of Sommerfeld and Epstein, this paper essentially anticipated Hamiltonian chaos and its implications for quantum mechanics, the field of Quantum Chaos. Considering that it was written before wave mechanics and the Schrödinger equation, this paper is remarkable, also because Einstein seems to have explicitly understood the quantum implications of classical nonintegrability.


As he puts it, if one examines any volume element in configuration space, any given orbit can pass through that region infinitely many times, either (a) with a (few) well defined values of the momentum – as on a torus – or (b) “there are infinitely many [values of the momentum] at the location under consideration“. In other words, small changes in the positions can correspond to very different momenta. Another way of saying something similar had to wait for Ed Lorenz in the 1960’s, who termed this as sensitive dependence on initial conditions, or what we term today as classical chaos.

The quantum condition he derives (and which now goes by the name of Einstein-Brilloiun-Keller-Maslov or EBKM quantization) uses the classical invariants identified by Poincaré, and Einstein goes on to give, in his view, the proper quantum conditions (11) that correspond to integrals along independent paths on n-dimensional tori (as in the figure above).


But being Einstein, he “notices immediately that type b) excludes the quantum  condition we formulated” earlier in the paper: this is the insight that was to lead half a century later, to the beginnings of the field of quantum chaos, the knowledge that there were classical motions for which quantum conditions could be stated, and those for which it was not possible, at least not in the same way. More can be read about “Einstein’s Unknown Insight and the Problem of Quantizing Chaos” in Douglas Stone’s article in Physics Today in 2005.

I first came across this paper of Einstein’s in 1978 or 1979 as a postdoc when I was struggling through Arnold’s text on Classical Mechanics and working on semiclassical mechanics. It may (OK, does) not count among Einstein’s greatest works, but arguably it is the one that has had the greatest impact on my own research. Other works of Einstein have had a much bigger impact on all our lives, of course, but this one is a paper whose centenary I’d like to mark.

Untitled 2And the other two as well. 2017 is the centenary of another annus mirabilis, a smaller one than 2005 perhaps, but enormous by any other standards.

Shameless Self-Promotion

DDKCover.pngAfter what seems an agonizingly long time since the first ideas of the book took root, I got the following letter from my publishers (how sweet that sounds!) last week,

“We are very pleased to inform you that your book has been published and it is available on http://tinyurl.com/jgn2djj. Customers can order it […] etc.”

D D Kosambi: Selected Works in Mathematics and Statistics is finally done, and is now available in both e and paper formats. The cover on the right shows DDK at three stages of his life, at Harvard, in Aligarh, and finally, in his TIFR years.

To quote from the blurb: This book fills an important gap in studies on D. D. Kosambi. For the first time, the mathematical work of Kosambi is described, collected and presented in a manner that is accessible to non-mathematicians as well. A number of his papers that are difficult to obtain in these areas are made available here. In addition, there are essays by Kosambi that have not been published earlier as well as some of his lesser known works. Each of the twenty four papers is prefaced by a commentary on the significance of the work, and where possible, extracts from technical reviews by other mathematicians.

My personal contribution to the book, other than to edit is, is fairly minimal. Apart from a preface, I have basically tried to describe the academic milieu in which Kosambi found himself at different points in his life, and have also tried to infer what others thought of him in another prefatory essay, “A Scholar in His Time”.

Kosambi gave his academic manifesto in the essay, “Adventure into the Unknown” which also is one of the places where he wrote that Science is the cognition of necessity. (It is quite another matter that the phrase is not one that can be understood in a straightforward manner. Anyhow, as a quote its famous enough.) Reprinting that essay in its entirety seemed appropriate, as also another note “On Statistics” that gives a flavour of DDK’s interdisciplinarity, mixing statistics, erudition, Marxism, etc. The last of the non-mathematical writings is a project completion report submitted by DDK to the Tata Trust in 1945 and it permits, among other things, an inner view of a vastly gifted and somewhat frugal scholar who, in parallel, and for Rs 1800, carried out  6 research projects on issues as diverse as writing a mathematical monograph on Path Spaces, editing a concordance of Bratrihari‘s epigrams, and constructing an electromechanical computational device (the Kosmagraph),  among others.

The remainder of the book is a set of reprints. Of his 67 or so papers in mathematics and statistics, about a third are presented, starting with some of his first papers, Precessions of an Elliptical Orbit and  On a Generalization of the Second Theorem of Bourbaki, and ending with one of the papers he wrote under the peculiar alias of S. Ducray,  Probability and Prime Numbers.

An attempt was made to include all the important papers, in particular the ones that made his reputation such as Parallelism and Path-Spaces that along with two other notes by Cartan and Chern are the basic of the Kosambi-Cartan-Chern theory,  the various papers that laid the foundations of scientific numismatics, as well as the papers that he should have followed up but didn’t, such as Statistics in Function Space that foreshadowed the K-L decomposition. The Kosambi distance in genetics was elaborated in  The Estimation of Map Distances from Recombination Values, and this is also reprinted.

Kosambi’s obsession with a statistical approach to the proof of the Riemann hypothesis resulted in several papers of which An Application of Stochastic Convergence, Statistical Methods in Number Theory, and The Sampling Distribution of Primes are reprinted here.  These, as is well-known, effectively ruined his reputation as a serious mathematician.

Chinese. Japanese. French. German. English. DDK published papers in all these languages, sometimes exclusively, and twice the same article in translation. Also reprinted in this volume are three of the foreign language papers, the ones in German, French, and Chinese. The last is of particular interest since it was written during an exchange visit to China in the late 1950’s and only later published in English.

A number of people have helped me along the way and it is my pleasure to thank them all here. For the initial suggestion that the book be done, and for sustained and general encouragement, I am very grateful to Romila Thapar. I’ve written about this before.  Meera Kosambi was keen to see her father’s mathematical legacy appreciated and was very enthusiastic about bringing out this collection and helped greatly in more ways than I can describe. She passed away in January 2015, when she knew the project was afoot, but not in any way certain as to how it would all come out. Michael Berry, S. G. Dani, and Andrew Odlyzko discussed and advised on various  points of the mathematics.  Indira Chowdhury and  Oindrila Raychaudhuri helped vis-à-vis archival matters.  Rajaram Nityananda had had many of DDK’s papers digitized, a great boon, and one that made the reproduction of some material much easier! Kapilanjan Krishan,  Rahim Rajan, and Mudit Trivedi  helped me locate some of the more obscure of DDK’s papers. K. Srinivas retyped almost all the papers, and Cicilia Edwin painstakingly proofread most of them.  Toshio Yamazaki and Divyabhanusinh Chavda  told me of their interactions with DDK, helping to flesh out the personality. Finally, Aban Mukherji was gracious with permissions, as were all the journal editors who kindly permitted the several articles to be reprinted.

DDK maintained a charmingly frank notebook diary during his Harvard years. On the 19th of January 1927 he notes: A most restless day. I have forgotten to mention Monday the 17th and an important conference with Birkhoff thereon […] Problems: Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Four color map, the functional equation […] Today was unusually restless with a great deal of time spent, possibly wasted in the Widener. Looked up old issues of Outing, Shakespear’s Hindi Readers, most of Burton’s works [of him more later], Roosevelt on African and Brazilian ‘sporting’ – worthless – Stefansson’s excellent and much remembered Friendly Arctic

All this variety in a single day! To recall WordsworthBliss indeed it was in that dawn to be alive! Kosambi, just out of his teens, was just bursting with energy, both intellectual and physical (for which one must read the diaries in some detail). The earnestness that only comes at that age shines through on the pages quite unselfconsciously:


Exuberance indeed, but also some simplicity: Deep interest, well sustained, is essential in the acquisition of knowledge upon any subject. And the third realization of the day: Life is good.  Yes indeed, to be young was very heaven.


ram1My mother, Malathi Ramaswamy, who passed away in Chennai last month, was a little over eighteen when I was born. This photo on the left, of the two of us, was taken some time in 1954 in Madras, a short while before we left to join my father who was then posted in Srinagar.

Sometime last year she completed a memoir of her childhood and wrote about the Madras that has all but vanished. This was mostly to tell us, our children, and her sisters’ children and grandchildren what little she remembered of her childhood and of those times. Ironically, she went a few days before the final printed copies of the book could be delivered to her, but she knew it was in the making.

The book, titled ALLATHUR VILLA: Nathamoony Chetty and the story of our family is available to read online, and it tells of how my grandmother, Seethalakshmi, was adopted by Allathur Nathamoony Chetty across caste and linguistic boundaries and a huge economic gradient. My mother and my four aunts grew up speaking Telugu at home, Tamil outside, and compared to the rest of their family, were much better off. When any of the five of them would talk about those days, it was always a magical world that they conjured up: the contrasts, the improbability, the role of chance…


Their home, the Allathur Villa of the title, is gone now; sold, torn down, and in its place on Poonamallee High Road, stands a hotel. A few days ago, S Muthiah who does The Hindu’s Metroplus column talked about the book: The tales a house tells.

Many tales indeed. Married at sixteen, my mother entered a very different world as an Army-officer’s wife. She must have imbibed much from her Chetty grandfather during her growing years though, since I can scarcely recall a time when she was not working. First as a school-teacher, shifting from one school to the other around the country as and when my father was posted, and then, after a longer stay in Delhi, as a tourist guide.

And eventually, as an entrepreneur. She found her métier as a tour operator when in the mid 1970’s she and my father founded a travel company in Delhi. Over the next thirty or so years, they promoted tours and accompanied them. From Kashmir to Nagaland, there were few parts of India that she had not traveled through. And as it happened, many parts of the world as well.


The picture above, of her sitting in a truck on the India-Bhutan border shows her at her happiest: traveling, taking people around the country, and being appreciated for it. Her enthusiasm was infectious, as was her optimism – she was the introduction to India for many people, particularly those who came here to explore handicrafts. Some years ago, she and those who had traveled with her described these various journeys on her website, Speaking with Hands. One of these friends of hers wrote to us recently to say that “Malathi has been an inspiration to many with her fierce love, intense interest and devotion to her beloved India. She was a woman of great integrity and conviction fused with love and compassion… She will be missed, by so many.

Like many women who were moving into the business world on their own in the 1970’s and 1980’s she had to write her own rules, and that was not always easy. Not for her, and frequently, also not for those around her… And she always had a project or two, was ever exploring, a characteristic that was admirable (and I did tell her that occasionally, even though it was often not easy to take). She did not shy away from trying to learn, whether it was trying out a new cellphone or laptop, or even reading difficult essays on the nature of modern physics.

UntitledNever at rest, till the end she was always looking forward to that next bit of travel, that next journey, and that next step.  These words from Eliot, I suspect would have resonated quite strongly with her:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sinning by Silence?

Weltenangst. German somehow seems the right language to use in the present context and if this word is not already a part of the general vocabulary its high time it joined weltschmerz  in describing the present global collective and perpetual sense of disquiet that does not seem to let up no matter where or when one looks, home or abroad.  There is, in a way that has not earlier been quite as sharp, a distinct sense of the binary: us/them, right/left, right/wrong, in/out… One yearns for a  world where the distinctions are recognizably blurred, where the blacks and whites give way to more  shades of gray, where one can be more definitely unsure… when one is more willing to learn, and to change.

But since that is not to be, this post is about the need to speak out, inspired by a friend in New York from whom I learned of Ella Wheeler Wilcox‘ poem Protest, written over a century ago. In words that are truly timeless, and as pertinent today as when they were written, she says:


To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many.

The poem itself is longer, but this post is about the last two lines from the excerpt above, “The few who dare must speak and speak again”. And it is essential that those who do not speak should at the very least, support those who speak for us, for the values that we hold dear.

The heart of one of the crises we are presently facing, the breakdown of communication between the UGC and the rest of the universe on the matter of admissions to the Ph D, is a matter of perceptions. The UGC believes that a system that works in the US or elsewhere should work here. The here knows that the system that would work elsewhere does not work here, and the proof of the pudding is in its eating… To give complete weightage to an interview would tilt the balance in favour of the more articulate. Who also, typically, have had many of the advantages that make them more articulate in the first place… It is simply not true, as Mr Javadekar asserts, that “UGC regulations on MPhil and PhD admissions are as per the best practices of the world. It is being implemented healthily in all universities. The problem is there in one university.” His statements reflect an imperfect understanding of what the best academic practices are, and what that one university has been trying to do all these years.

To start with, the MPhil is a dying degree that should be allowed to become extinct as per the best practices of the world. And as for healthy implementation, the healthiest implementation of admission to the PhD is through the GRE Examination and applications, with no weightage at all for an oral examination… US university admissions committees know full well that their brightest graduate students (typically those from Asia) may not speak English well enough when they enter, so using performance in an oral entrance examination as a yardstick would serve them badly. They do what works well: Administer a good written examination and choose the best from the written scores. Of course they do it intelligently as well, using a combination of measures, but an interview is typically not one of them.

The UGC would best serve the University community  by restricting itself to be a regulatory body as far as curricula are concerned (if at all) and stay away from prescribing admission rules and procedures. There are mechanisms aplenty to identify those who do not follow fair practices, and instead of finding routes of exempting them from fair play (such as declaring them to be INI‘s or Institutions of National Importance), it would serve us all better if the UGC would step in and insist on an even playing field for all.


To make the point further, the real responsibility is to ensure that all have an equal – or equitable – access to higher education.  And one of the reasons for this is that the workforce, especially for skilled jobs, should have a balanced representation. Gender imbalance, for example,  at the hiring stage reflects to a large extent the gender imbalance at earlier stages, that of admission to the qualifying degree for example. This is what has been termed the leaky pipeline in the context of gender representation in academic careers, but it is clear that the leaky  pipeline idea operates just as well for all other groups, particularly those that have been excluded for one or the other reason.

The human race, Ella Wilcox asserts,  has climbed on protest, and indeed we have. And protest we must, at these ill-argued, poorly considered fiats decreed by a body that has lost its relevance, the UGC which should also heed that students of all persuasions are now are opposing this move …

And not just this. It appears that the idea of a university is lost on the very group that needs it most, the government. In the abstract, the government of the people, by the people and for the people, should use those very people it has invested in to help it think through and devise a better future for the rest of the people. And arguably, that is one of the jobs our universities should undertake – take our country into its future. At least that is what, again in the abstract, each modern nation does. It is 2017 after all, and one of the blindingly obvious truths is that any government needs to use the best minds that it can muster, not just the best brawn. To disregard uncomfortable thought is more than just another mistake… Minds are terrible things to waste.

In the past three years, especially in higher education administration one has seen a relentless and uncompromising policy of choosing complaisant and available mediocrity for purposes of ideological resonance. This is a big mistake, one that we really cannot afford, not least because there is saner counsel available.

In a journal article that is available on the net, David Roy Smith of the Department of Biology, University of Western Ontario (DOI: 10.15252/embr.201643750) points out (passionately, one might add) that by democratically electing a person who openly mocks science and what one has learned from science (in the USA) puts both the basic sciences and our planet in danger. To quote from Smith’s article, “The situation is looking equally dire in other parts of the world, with nationalist, anti-immigration, and big business interests taking precedence over the preservation of our planet, its natural resources, and its ecosystems and species. To be an environmentalist, an academic, or a scientist of any kind in this polarized and pernicious political landscape risks being labeled an elitist, a liar, an ultra-leftist, and someone who is out of touch with the average person.”

That is something that those of us who teach at this one University are quite familiar with. Being at JNU is equated in the public (post-truth coloured!) eye as being ultra-leftist and all of the other things Smith says.  We see this again and again: To be an academic of any kind in a polarized and pernicious landscape is a major risk. To whit, the following:

copy-2-of-southasian-map-by-himalWe are taught – those of us who have learned of the physical world – that there is no special place in space from which one should derive all our coordinates. There really is no preferred sense of direction other than by convention and by legacy.  For many years now, I have had the Himal South Asia magazine’s unusual map hanging in my office and have had innumerable discussions (of a non-political kind) about how it helps to change one’s point of view about our country, whats up south and down north and so on. I must say that learning to see this map every working day (and learning to refer to it in as normal a fashion as possible) has also been instructive in its own way, and it seems more natural now to draw a line from Kanyakumari down to Kashmir rather than the other way around. To have any sense of nationalism hinge on a completely arbitrary definition of up or down is to have a somewhat unhinged sense of nationalism.

cheAnd speaking of ultra-leftist, another thing that hangs in my office is (what I consider) a superb poster, a telescopic image of Ché Guevara on the South American continent… something I picked up forty years ago when it was fresh and new, and another thing I have had to explain to any number of visitors who eventually all come down to “Ah… JNU, what else can one expect?” But this is just one poster, and it is more about the kind of aesthetic I cared about at some point in time rather than some ideology that is indelibly tattooed onto my soul.

By discrediting academic values, one discredits a rational approach to governance that might see dissent and protests as part of a process that is, in the end, enriching because of its argumentative nature. And we must therefore support the few who speak and speak again.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Actually a dozen of them, one being Very Unfortunate.

Not having Lemony Snicket to catalogue my tales of woe, I must be my own muse, writing this post on a somewhat bumpy and very late flight home. I should be more upset than I feel since I have managed to spend four hours in an airport on a day when I could have used that time more profitably, and something like  eight or nine hours time on travel all told, just to get from Bangalore to Delhi. The easy answer to why I am not so upset would be age or experience or both, but I suspect that with the passing years, I have begun to expect unfortunate events (or UEs), a sort of retribution for various sins of the past. But I digress.

untitledI’ve had to travel to Bangalore to chair a panel discussion on the 27th January, and to minimise my time away from Delhi, I decided to go out on the 26th and return on the 27th. I had asked my assistant at the office (which shall remain nameless)  to book my tickets. On the 26th, I reached Delhi’s T3 terminal at 11:30 for my flight that was scheduled to leave at 12:55, only to find that it was further delayed on account of fog, rain, and also the Republic Day Air Force flypast… So the first Unfortunate event (UE1) was that I reached Bangalore at 6:30 that evening, three hours after I should have been there, necessitating programme changes, etc. etc. I had only myself to blame – a little thought would have told me that it is madness to fly out of or into Delhi on Republic Day with the added security, but hindsight is no solace.

Now let me skip to the last, the Very Unfortunate Event 12. On my return journey on the 27th, around 8 pm when I was comfortably ensconced in my seat, waiting for the door to close and the plane to pull back, some air marshals arrived and asked me to follow them.  I was taken off the plane…

photo-on-28-01-17-at-2-14-pm-2Although I was not allowed on that flight, I eventually made it back to Delhi by the next flight, although that wasn’t for another two hours, which means I got back a day later, on the 28th…  In the process I had to cancel one ticket, buy another, cancel that, get a third, The details are dreary, but I also learned just how shoddy the so-called security at our airports is… I dare say that nobody thinks its that great anyhow, but we all go through the motions.

UE2 starts with the travel itinerary that I had asked for. Instead of sending me back from Bangalore to Delhi on the 27th January, the travel agency had actually made a booking for the 27th February.

photo-on-28-01-17-at-2-14-pm-2-2UE3:  Nobody checked the tickets that had been sent by email – not my secretary, not the office staff. Me neither.

UE4. On the 27th January, my assistant asked that I should be web checked-in, and the agency sent the boarding pass, leading to UE5, that I also didn’t check the boarding pass, a fragment of which is shown on the left.

Using this boarding pass for 27 February, I entered the Bangalore International Airport, waved in by the CISF staff who looked at the ticket and my JNU ID card. UE6. And UE7 was that I was also passed through security, another set of CISF chaps.

Being somewhat early at the airport, I tried to see if there was an earlier flight I could take, but I was already past security so it didn’t seem worth the hassle. Anyhow, by about 8 the flight was boarding and I tried to get in, and the first real jolt that all was not smooth was UE8, when I was briefly held up at the gate. Apparently someone else also had the boarding sequence 1 (I was mildly surprised that I was the first person to check in on the flight…). After a few minutes the very pleasant attendants told me to go ahead as it was OK.  By now, nobody should be surprised that the CISF guards at the aerobridge waved me through after a perfunctory glance at my boarding pass.

untitledI came into the plane, and immediately faced UE9, and feeling somewhat like baby bear, I pointed out to the stewardess that someone had been sitting in my chair and he was still there… Very kindly, even after comparing the two boarding passes, she  reassigned me to a new seat, and its number 13C should have warned me that that was indeed  UE10. I settled in, retrieved my Keigo Higashino (Malice, by the way, and an excellent read!) listened to another attendant tell us in a loud voice and with considerable attention to detail just what to do if there was an emergency landing (I always pay attention to which handle I am supposed to pull), and suddenly a couple of other airlines staff rush in ask for my boarding pass, match the torn stub and ask me to get up. Alarm bells going off in my mind, it was surely UE11: Something is wrong with my ticket, and without explaining, they take my luggage off the plane and ask me to follow them, leading to VUE12

There was a lot of waiting, some loss of composure, a few angry phone calls, and a colossal loss of time, but it was only then that I pieced together the banal mundanity of what had happened. The travel agency had issued a ticket for the wrong day, and including myself, no fewer than eight people had not realised the error over a 4 day period. And with a wrong ticket, I had made it all the way from the airport main gate to a seat on a plane that was about to take off… All of which would be laughable, of course, except that the obvious and absolute lack of care is more than a bit worrisome.

In the end I trundled home in the early hours of today with a little help from the airlines staff who do rise to the occasion.  One of them was frank enough to confess that what I had gone through was a first for him… But there are always “explanations”:   If you had only checked in your baggage, we would had spotted the mistake there. (Yes, but you also tell people to travel light and have now introduced no luggage fares, right?) If you had checked in before the other person with the same sequence number… right. Many ifs, but it also throws up some how comes.

  • How come one can get a boarding pass a month in advance? Even the airlines staff were perplexed.
  • How come three sets of CISF staff looked at my boarding pass and didn’t notice anything? So all they did was that they tallied the name with the photograph?
  • The airlines make a big deal of scanning the tickets to verify identity. How come these readers don’t get a wrong date on the ticket?

This is a service industry after all, so the staff aim to please and are always quick to assume that some machine might have made a mistake somewhere. Machines do, but in this sad story, the biggest mistakes were human.

untitledIn all this, and I guess that’s one of the things that kept me reasonably equable, there were moments of comedy. One handler at the aerobridge asked me why I had come a month early for my flight! Another set of people asked me why I booked for February if I wanted to travel in January (although it was painfully obvious from the nature of my ticket that it was booked by someone else). But the cake, so to speak, was taken when they told me that they would have to rebook me on another flight, and the supervisor said that they had two flights, one at 10:45 pm and another at 00:45 am, and “Which would you prefer?”

All in all, it took some doing and I am still a bit mystified by the series of linked unfortunate events, with every link in the chain breaking down… I feel a bit like Wodehouse’s Crumpet in The Great Hat Mystery and “prefer to think that the whole thing, as I say, has something to do with the Fourth Dimension. I am convinced that that is the true explanation, if our minds could only grasp it.”

Talking about Science

Several strands of discussion came together in my mind recently, sparked first by an email from the Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre, asking for Science Communicators, and then by two op-ed articles in the Hindu, on whether or not scientists should be responsible for communicating their science to the general public, apart from some ongoing discussions in FB and on Twitter on the same issues.

image7There is no gainsaying that this is an important matter, and a difficult one to address in a wholly satisfactory manner, especially in a multilingual country like ours, one where the general level of education is not as high as one would like. Nevertheless, one must laud efforts that have a non-negligible impact, and the Science Express is a brilliant example of how things can be done right. This is a unique collaboration of the Department of Science and Technology, the Science Museums and the Indian Railways who have come together to make a science exhibition train that travels across the country, and has been doing so since 2007, and by now it has traveled over 142,000 km and welcomed more than 1.56 crore visitors. It has become the largest, longest running and most visited mobile science exhibition in the world. Now the DST wants people to man this remarkable science museum. They would like

Young science postgraduates/graduates or equivalent. Education or experience in science communication, science education, environmental science, environment education, life sciences or related disciplines will be given preference. Excellent communication skills and knowledge of multiple Indian languages is desirable. Candidates should be self-motivated and medically fit for the long and continuous exhibition tour.

Self-motivation is indeed required, and the ad spares no punches:  The job involves work without off days and continuous travel on the train.This being a mobile exhibition, changing location frequently, the candidates should have ability to quickly adapt to different and challenging local conditions. Consolidated salary in the range of Rs. 20,000 to 24,000/- per month…

As the photo above (taken from the SE website) shows there are people who will bite, though one does wish that the job would be more remunerative- what the train does seems so valuable, and in a country like ours, so severely necessary.

Coincidentally, and somewhat ironically, one of the op-eds in the Hindu pointed out the lack of science communicators or more accurately, the lack of a critical mass of science communicators in the country. That of course is neither here nor there, since there is the glaring lack of a critical mass of persons from almost any discipline (or of persons of discipline for that matter) in the country. But Gautam Desiraju makes other points when he asks “Are scientists responsible for communicating their work to the general public?” Both his write-up as well as the counterpoint by R. Prasad, whose rejoinder simply  points out that  ‘There is a huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon’ are charmingly illustrated with images of scientists communicating with non-specialists!

This morning I had occasion to talk with a younger colleague about these viewpoints, and both of us recalled how influential (in our own lives) some popular books by well-known scientists had been: What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, or James  Watson’s Double Helix, not to mention some truly popular books (in their times) by some of the greatest scientists, The Origin of Species by Darwin and Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. I only learned very recently that Wiener was persuaded to write up his ideas in order to communicate them to the public by a French publisher – and given the prolixity of the language used, it is a wonder that the book reached as far and wide as it did. Nevertheless, as we use cyberspace to communicate our ideas today, our debt to him is obvious. And the very readable What is life? resulted from a set of lectures to the general ‘lay’ public in Dublin in the war years.

The importance of communicating one’s ideas to whatever audience that shows an interest cannot be overstated. I’m not sure I want to get into whether it is a scientist’s moral obligation or duty to do so, but it does seem to me that the value of most things we do is enhanced when the communal nature of our activities is explicitly recognized. And the effectiveness of the work is directly related to the size and width of the community that is aware of or is made aware of it.

Investment in research or in scientific activity is ultimately a  community decision –  and given our political system, it is reflected in the way in which the budget for science is decided. Which in turn is determined by the party (or parties) we vote into power. The bulk of research in the country is therefore publicly supported, and one of the issues at hand is whether the results of publicly funded research need to be shared with the public that funded it. [The argument has been made very forcefully in the west, where research is funded both publicly and privately. When private companies fund research, the results are guarded zealously for possible patents, but many have argued for full public access to publicly funded research – and this has formed the vanguard of the Open Access movement. But of that later.] One can take the point of view that the public in question do not have the required sophistication to appreciate the nuances, the finer details of most areas of research, and there is some truth in that. But the same argument would hold for, say, music, or cuisine, or poetry or any number of things that we enjoy as a community and appreciate as individuals. Each of us may hear the notes we wish to hear – or can hear, for that matter – and make of it what we will. We may get a sense of the larger scheme of things, whether the finer points of raga Anandabhairavi or the crucial role played by the p53 gene in each of our cells, or any number of the other wonders that we have created or discovered, and there will be those among us for whom even this vague sense will provide the catalyst for other avenues of exploration and discovery.

71hz53cqn-lThere is a sense in which the privilege of being invested in to pursue publicly funded research is very much an expression of the trust of a society. By acknowledging this as part of a social contract, almost the very least one can do is to pay back to society by talking openly (and clearly) about what one does and the results one has obtained. If one doesn’t, there is always the danger that someone else, less able and less articulate might well do so, and other than writing bitterly about X’s misrepresentations, one will not be able to do much else. Science communicators (as a tribe) play a different role. At their best, their function is to integrate many approaches in an analytical manner, and present this in a format that is sometimes easier on the eye. (In this genre, and from my own area of interest, there are few books that compare with James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science, a hugely popular and hugely influential description of chaos theory and nonlinear science. And accurate as well.)

awThe friendship and the intense discussions between Goethe and Humboldt, for instance, as Andrea Wulf discusses in her brilliant The Invention of Nature, were mutually very influential, with Humboldt’s detailed reports being inspirational not just to Goethe, but also to Darwin, Wordsworth and John Muir among others. One can argue that the state of science, and the state of the world, was very different two centuries ago, as it surely was. Card-carrying scientists were fewer and the language that scientists used was not as forbiddingly jargon-filled as it can seem today, but there is good evidence that the lay public flocked to hear Humboldt and his descriptions of South America, much as today’s audience might well be glad to hear from a specialist, of the unexplored vistas of string theory or human behaviour or the brain.

Hearing about a subject from someone who has contributed greatly to it can be much more than just inspirational: the authenticity of experience transmits itself in a very unique manner. It is quite another thing to have someone else talk about it, though there are exceptions, of course- some science journalists are very effective communicators of the big picture, in a way that a practitioner who is focused on some small portion of the puzzle may not be. And of course, this is their forte, putting together a narrative that can grip a reader in a way in which an individual’s very personal story might not. But authenticity has a separate value and cannot be substituted…

Which is why it might be good to occasionally worry about communicating just what it is that one does – science, poetry, or philosophy – to a wider and larger audience. The process might well be beneficial to the quality of what one does in the first place! And today there are many different ways in which this might be done. Through a blog, for instance, or a YouTube channel, through books and articles, or by public lectures, the tradition for which is sadly absent in most of our cities.

Does this, namely taking the time to communicate one’s work to others – even if one doesn’t have to – take away from the presumably more important task at hand, of doing the science in the first place? To which one might well ask why do science at all then. And in any case, it is an unrepeatable exercise. What other work would Gamow have done if he had not written 1, 2, 3… infinity? Or what other vistas might Richard Dawkins have explored, had he not spent his time writing The Selfish Genome or The Extended Phenotype. I prefer to think that this, in itself, was the essential task, to write the books that would go on to influence others.

newsfeynmanOne can go on talking about talking about science… but in the end the basic points are few. There needs to be much more about scientific matters in public discourse, particularly in this day and age, when almost any aspect of our daily life is so influenced by the scientific advances of the past few centuries. It has always needed science communicators (who may or may not be practicing scientists) to do their bit, to bring out the significance of the work, and to see where value can be added. But hearing about any field directly from the ones who have contributed to its advance – in whatever way – has a charm and value all of its own.