O Dunning! O Kruger!

While moaning about the state of affairs we find ourselves in at the present time (and indeed about the present day affairs of state) to an old student who has since fled these shores, I learned that what I felt were original and acute perceptions of why things at JNU were the way they were had a name: the Dunning-Kruger syndrome.

To quote Wikipedia (which calls it the D-K effect, but I prefer syndrome, given that we are experiencing a near melt-down), “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”


Which succinctly sums up the current situation at JNU, and also sort of explains why it is that the majority of the academic staff at JNU appear to be so much at sea at the present time. There is no point in explaining to very deaf, those, as the adage puts it, that will not hear. For one thing, our line is really a very simple one, that policing at all levels does not result in academic value, and that there are better ways of achieving intellectual discipline.

Our latin forbears put it simply, verbum sapienti sat est: To the wise, a word suffices. (The phrase and its abbreviation verb. sap. was drummed into our philistine skulls by Mr Cleary, my Class IX schoolteacher.) The inability of the JNU teaching fraternity to get their point across, is really a consequence of the D-K effect. Since it has much relevance to our current situation, and I warmly recommend a slow read (or quick scan) of the Wiki entry which has many points of resonance, as when talking of their paper Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence it is noted that “much incorrect self-assessment of competence derives from the person’s ignorance of a given activity’s standards of performance”.


The standards of performance of academic administration are high, and indeed need to be even higher. One of the problems seems to be that they don’t know that they don’t know... the refrain in the Kruger and Dunning song that was performed when the duo earned an IgNobel prize. This was part of the IgNobel ceremony’s Incompetence Opera that year. The irony, of course, is that the refrain can be applied to all sides of the argument, but let that be.

To add more would be both futile and self-defeating, so let me close by quoting (selectively) from Charles Darwin: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.


The Public Face of Science

440px-E._M._S._Namboodiripad I was recently invited to Thrissur to speak at EMS-Smrithi,  the annual meeting that commemorates EMS Namboodiripad. The CPM leader Prakash Karat has said of EMS that he “straddled the history of twentieth century Kerala and the Indian Communist movement in a manner which invokes awe. The word ‘history’ is what recurs in the Malayalam media while paying tributes to him. History maker, history’s man, epochal figure: these are some of the terms which underline the recognition that EMS was something bigger than a political leader.”

It was an unusual invitation, but one that I gladly accepted, in part because of the unusual setting, and the chance to rub shoulders with a very different group of people. Not all unfamiliar, but still. I had been asked to speak on “Critical thinking, scientific temper, and the role of the scientific community“, and while the essay will appear in print elsewhere, I thought I would share some of it in this blogpost, although given that these are ongoing concerns of mine,  bits and pieces of what follows  have appeared in other posts.

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.

Scientists therefore have the responsibility – even the moral obligation or duty – of accurately communicating their ideas and results. Of necessity, some of this will be restricted to an audience of peers, but increasingly, it is necessary to communicate the results of publicly funded research to a wider audience. In addition, there are fallacious and misleading statements on issues pertaining to science that are made by persons holding public office (mainly politicians, but also others that play a prominent role in society). Scientists and communicators of science share the additional responsibility of responding to such statements, regardless of how uncomfortable this might be.

India’s share in the world’s scientific enterprise has been steadily increasing over the years. It is well known that the scientific output of a country correlates strongly with the nominal GDP, but recent data suggests also that India’s contribution to the scientific literature (ranked sixth today) has been increasing at an even sharper rate, in contrast to the US, Japan or the EU. At the same time, India’s share of citations – a proxy for the quality of the research in terms of how useful it is considered by peers – is only ranked twelfth. Our role as consumers overtakes our role as contributors to the global knowledge pool.

There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from inadequate and subcritical funding of scientific research to a lack of a sufficiently large or competent body of scientists, namely the lack of a critical mass in most disciplines. It has even been suggested that Indians, either innately or due to our educational system, lack a truly innovative spirit, and thus our research tends to be derivative and incremental rather than being innovative and path-breaking.

One reason why this assumes particular significance is that the practice of scientific research has evolved radically in the past few decades, largely due to the effects of globalization. The combined effects of a vastly improved communication network and enhanced computational power have contributed greatly to making scientific research a global enterprise. Many more scientific papers in many more areas of science today tend to involve large numbers of authors, and as the problems addressed become more complex, these different authors tend to be from different disciplines, often from different institutions, and also often from different countries.

These changes have been brought about not just by globalization and enhanced communication and mobility, but also by the realization of shared scientific goals and the advantages of collaborative research. Looking at the patterns of scientific publication over the past fifteen or more years, one can conservatively estimate that between 10 and 15% of the papers that are published by Indians is in collaboration with researchers based outside India. If one were to restrict the count to the last decade, to high-impact journals, or to authors from the better-known institutes in the country, the proportion of papers which result from international collaborations is even higher.

Trust is a crucial component in carrying out such collaborative research. One has to believe in the reliability of results communicated by one’s collaborators, some of who one may not have even met. And as is becoming painfully evident there are numerous ways in which the trust can be broken. Deliberately, as in the cases of fraud, but also inadvertently, when cultural cues are misread and the work (or other) ethics of different cultures clash. In this context, having a properly articulated code of conduct that is generally accepted is very valuable. The difficulty of finding a universally acceptable code of conduct that can be encapsulated in something like a scientist’s Hippocratic Oath is a very real one. But there are many other ways in which this trust can be broken, and that is through public voices that speak of or for science.

The Science Academies of India, namely the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences of India are bodies that have some national responsibility for the maintenance of standards. From the mid 1930’s when they were all formed, they have tried to represent the best of Indian science, both in the practice of science as well as in its presentation, through publications, through engagement with the public, and by creating an independent and autonomous forum for the promotion of science. But in addition, there is also the Indian Science Congress, a body that has been in existence prior to Independence. The Prime Minister has traditionally attended at least the inaugural session of the Annual meeting of the Congress, and many national policies have been announced at these meetings.

F1.largeOver the years, though, the participation of politicians in what should be mainly a meeting of scientists has been unfortunate. On the one hand, the quality of the science at these meetings has been quite poor – JBS Haldane wrote a desperate essay, “Scandal of the Science Congress” describing his participation in the 1957 Congress, where he says, “I was privileged to hear the Prime Minister’s speech to the Association of Scientific Workers at the Science Congress recently held in Bombay. I did not hear his address to the Congress as a whole, since my ticket for this event had been thoughtfully removed from the booklet issued to me on arrival in Bombay.  The Prime Minister made some rather bitter remarks about Indian Scientists who worked abroad because pay and facilities were better. […]  It is time that responsible persons in India realised that the invitation of foreigners to such Congresses lowers the prestige of Indian science considerably.  […] But the object of the Science Congress should be to advance science in India, and this, in my opinion, it failed to do.  There would be little difficulty in making it useful. This would involve discourtesy to some influential people. But in science efficiency is more important than courtesy.”

 Haldane’s advice has not been heeded, and in recent years we have seen that the prestige of Indian science has been lowered considerably with very public and very irresponsible statements being made by responsible people on ancient Indian contributions to aerospace technology or reconstructive surgery or whatever. Especially when they are widely reported, such statements give a very negative image of the state of Indian science.

It is not just the lack of critical thinking that such statements betray, but they also indicate an intellectual laziness: there is no appeal to new evidence, no original or new research that uncovers any new data, and indeed the attempt is very much to create a fiction that suits a political narrative. In addition to a lack of data, there is also a deliberate attempt to ignore evidence – as for example regarding the migration of humans into the subcontinent, or more recently, the bizarre statements by the Minister of State for Human Resource Development who was  quoted as saying that “Nobody, including our ancestors, in writing or orally, have said they saw an ape turning into a man. Darwin’s theory (of evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curricula.”

In reaction, the three Science Academies of India issued a joint statement, “to state that there is no scientific basis for the Minister’s statements. Evolutionary theory, to which Darwin made seminal contributions, is well established. There is no scientific dispute about the basic facts of evolution. This is a scientific theory, and one that has made many predictions that have been repeatedly confirmed by experiments and observation. An important insight from evolutionary theory is that all life forms on this planet, including humans and the other apes have evolved from one or a few common ancestral progenitors.

It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths.

The theory of evolution by natural selection as propounded by Charles Darwin and developed and extended subsequently has had a major influence on modern biology and medicine, and indeed all of modern science. It is widely supported across the world.”

UntitledThis incident points to an appalling lack of scientific temper in the public sphere. Scientific temper is a much abused term, and although it has been inserted in our Constitution, there is little real public understanding of what Nehru had in mind when he defined scientific temper in his Discovery of India as “a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellow men“, namely that this was a characteristic general quality that we should absorb.

In January 2012, the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources publicised the Palampur Statement, a resolution adopted at the International Conference on Science Communication for Scientific Temper. The Palampur Statement is a fairly long and comprehensive document that delves into, among other things, the changing world order, the current state of science and technology, the spread of fundamentalism, and so on. It has to be read- even cursorily would be enough- to get a true sense of its potential impact in our lives. One fragment that summarizes the main gist of it goes: the thought structure of a common citizen is constituted by scientific as well as extra-scientific spaces. These two mutually exclusive spaces co-exist peacefully. Act of invocation of one or the other is a function of social, political or cultural calling. Those who consider spreading Scientific Temper as their fundamental duty must aim at enlarging the scientific spaces. And it concludes: We call upon the people of India to be the vanguard of the scientific temper.

In vain. There is no noticeable increase in an appreciation of science in the public sphere. The suppression, or assassination, of rationalists – Kalburgi, Pansare, Dabholkar, Lankesh – point also to a persistence in public intolerance that education has done little to dispel. Many of the peoples’ science movements have noticeably decelerated, and paradoxically, the growth of the internet and social media have also seen an increase in fake news and misinformation, to the extent that another minister can assert, also at this year’s Science Congress, as it happens, that the late Stephen Hawking  “said on record that our Vedas might have a theory which is superior to Einstein’s theory of E=mc2.”

So what role should the scientific community play in such matters? It is exhausting to counter every bullet of misinformation or false propaganda with public statements, but the fact that reactions are otherwise so slow in coming indicate that there is a lack of effective science communicators or more accurately, the lack of a critical mass of science communicators in the country. The West has had a long tradition of scientists themselves communicating their theories or discoveries with the public, be it Faraday and the Royal Society Lectures, or Eddington, Darwin, Huxley, Humboldt, and more recently, Sagan, Dawkins, Crick and Watson, and the like.  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.] 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. There will be those among us for whom even this vague sense will provide the catalyst for other avenues of exploration and discovery.

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!

There 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.

Almost all the research that is typically done at the University is publicly funded, through the Government of India via various ministries, or by other public funds. Should the results of such research not be made available to as many as possible? Willinsky’s Access Principle states that ‘a commitment to scholarly work carries with it the responsibility to circulate that work as widely as possible’. This is in part so that knowledge that is created can be disseminated in a manner that the largest numbers of people have unfettered access to it. Who ‘owns’ knowledge? The scholar who creates it through research, or the funding agency that funded it directly or indirectly, or the commercial publishing house who owns the journal where the research was reported?    Should scholarly publications be absolutely freely available, or should they only reach those who have the funds to pay for subscriptions to the journals where these articles are published? There are as many nuanced opinions on this question as there are scholars, but with the ubiquity of the internet and the rising costs of journals, the issue is one that merits some thought and discussion.

The digital revolution is upon us all in a way that demands that such issues be thought about afresh since the modes of preservation of information and the modes of dissemination of knowledge have changed radically in our lifetime. For one thing, most journals of any quality are now online. Furthermore, many of them are ‘open access’, namely the articles they carry can be viewed without a subscription. However, the majority of academic journals have been in existence for a long time now and date back to the pre- digital era. The digitization of this legacy is a related issue, and the manner of the digitization and its consequent costs is relevant.

Openness is ‘better’ in an abstract way – at the end of the day it is not clear from which quarter the fundamental advances are going to come, and so it is best not to deny anyone the requisite opportunities. The more people who have access to knowledge, the more one can maximize the probability of any one of them using some part of it in a fundamental and future altering manner.

Willinsky proposes that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right, one that is closely related to the ability to defend other rights. The argument is tenuous but offers an interesting perspective on the ability of increased access to knowledge to have an impact beyond the areas envisioned by the creators of that knowledge. To some extent, the Right to Information Act in India has had a very similar effect – information on one aspect of public life can have consequences on other aspects.

kosambiScholars should see that their work reaches the largest number of people and should make all efforts to ensure this. This is their dharma. Academic administrators should see that scholarly work is supported in a manner so as to have this wide reach. And this is their karma. In the long run, inclusivity is clearly more in the public interest than exclusion in any form, especially in a globalized world, and the Open Access movement can help us along this path.

bernalIn closing, I would like to recall DD Kosambi’s essay, Science and Freedom, wherein he says “There is an intimate connection between science and freedom, the individual freedom of the scientist being only a small corollary. Freedom is the recognition of necessity; science is the cognition of necessity. The first is the classical Marxist definition of freedom, to which I have added my own definition of science.” Science, in Kosambi’s felicitous turn of phrase, is the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding – through thought and experience – of what is required, what is needed.

There is, as JD Bernal said so many years ago, hardly any country in the world that needs the application of science more than India. What is called for, therefore, is increased public investment, both intellectual and economic, in this necessary science and the cognition of this necessity.


The least difficult part of writing this post has been to decide on a title, and one that would share some of the awkwardness and pain that one feels in writing of this, the belated realization that I have met the (internet) trolls and they are us.

UntitledThis Saturday on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, I shared the following striking painting that was originally posted on FB with the annotation “Reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature depicting Lord Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women. Shared by our great history teacher Prof. Harbans Mukhia. Let’s resolve on this Eid to win back the Indìa of magic the picture depicts.”  I’m glad I did this – so many of my FB friends have gone on to share it further… And I was pleased that my erstwhile colleague from JNU was responsible in some part for having spread the word, and the message. However, see the Addendum below, as well as an article that has appeared in the Indian Express. [Fact checks at this point: a) The painting is not Rajasthani, probably Kangra. b) it is not the Eid moon. Actually, it is not even the moon per se, it is a solar eclipse that Krishna and Balarama are pointing out, and c) it is not a group of Muslim men and women, it is Krishna’s adoptive family and friends in 18th century poshak.]

Apparently many other people had also sent out the image, so I was a bit surprised when shortly thereafter, someone commented on my FB post and pointed to a tweet from True Indollogy to say “This picture is fake. There is no such 18th century painting. I challenge you to reveal its whereabouts (where is it located?)”. And then, “Secularism is not a one way street.”

Even the straw-man in the argument would be bewildered. The painting is a charming remembrance of times past, when it was possible to keep one’s religious identity distinct from one’s politics, and when, one would like to believe, all these issues were not automatically conflated. I, in particular, had not talked of secularism, and believe it or not, for most of us who have liked or shared the image, it was just a nice way to convey Eid greetings. We may have been mistaken in what the image was about, we may have made our interpolations (mentally at least, if not in writing) but in any case, the image is not “fake”, and while its provenance can be debated, it’s message would be as compelling were it a thousand years old, or three. [Fact check: The image is in the Smithsonian. So much for that. And it is a solar eclipse, giving a sense of wonder. And Krishna and family are clearly enjoying the view of the eclipse, unlike modern day Indians who avoid seeing such natural phenomena for all sorts of superstitious reasons. Which is an equally good and compelling message from the painting.]

Other than to point out that the self-same image had indeed appeared on the pages of Swarajya some years ago, I have not said anything, and neither am I going to add to that debate here, but I have been bewildered (to the extent that age permits) by the ensuing discussion on the two-way streetness of secularism and so on, and the fairly large number of ‘plus’ or people-like-us who can find serious fault with either the picture, its purported image, or its use today. Or that the way in which the term secularism has become to mean something very different from its textbook definition, of the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.

John-Tenniel-Humpty-DumptyWe are in a wonderland of sorts, so I can quite accept that words mean whatever the user intends them to mean, like this memorable interchange from Through the Looking Glass.

The importance of being master cannot be denied, but it is impossible to carry out a discussion, meaningful or or not, to establish mastery on the pages of FB, as this very helpful video on the science of trolls so carefully explains.  But the post and subsequent comments confirmed the feeling, much like Oliver Perry said, that we have met the trolls and they are us.

A Cave Troll, from: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Troll_(Middle-earth)

Of course, the internet being what it is, there is already a FB page for Trolls-r-Us though this is not relevant here. Neither is a similarly named website, “an archive of misinformation and propaganda.” This struck a nerve, given that one had been accused of propagating fake news, so I did a random search of this latter website for the word India, and found this gem: Egyptian pharaohs were of Slavic origin, the true history of Russia is hidden by masons […]. The human species was evolved not in Africa, but on the territories of current Russia. The Russian ancestors were known as Aryans who came to India. These Russian ancestors are mentioned in the Indian Vedas.” The site goes on to say These claims contradict the available anthropological data. So yet another nugget of wisdom is said to be contained in the Vedas. Having heard so many claims these past few years of what all our ancients knew or had known and having been both privately and publicly embarrassed by it, I was mildly surprised that there were not more claims on that site.

And this then brought to mind a paper that I had seen many years ago with the title On the Remarkable Spectrum of a Non-Hermitean Random Matrix Model by Daniel E. Holz, Henri Orland, and A. Zee. What had caught my eye at that time was the abstract, and in particular the last phrase: A non-Hermitean random matrix model proposed a few years ago has a remarkably intricate spectrum. […] The spectrum is complicated because our matrix contains everything that will ever be written in the history of the universe, including this particular paper.

We are indeed living in the matrix. Verb. sap.

Addendum (my notes in blue, others comments in italics)

A friend (and a real one) on FaceBook commented: This was being shared as an example of  ‘secularism’. Later, one of my friends posted a long clarification that showed this was not as it was claimed to be. I will copy it here or refer to it.

My reaction when I first saw it in a WhatsApp group was somewhat like this: It is so anachronistic! Eid in the time of Krishna? Lord Krishna with Muslims? Islam arose around 7 CE. And, this is supposed to be shared “via Harbans Mukhia”? Really? What did Prof Mukhia say about this? A joke or fabrication? Or, something else? Need to know a lot more. I don’t know what to make of this. It is really problematic to say Islam existed in that period. Secularism shouldn’t attribute symbolism where it may not exist in that form. The interpretation associating it with Eid is puzzling. “

Well, it was indeed shared via Harbans Mukhia, although he does not say that it was  an example of secularism (see my post above) but he did identify the others in the picture as muslims and went on to say: Is this the India we have lost?

There are allegorical references in many paintings and this is something that all of us are used to, so anachronism may not be such an issue. If one were looking at the painting as a record of some incident or a depiction of some event, clearly more research is needed. He then went on to quote his friend on FB:

Since many people shared the of us shared the image, here’s a clarification: For all those who are interested, here is Prof. B N Goswamy’s response to Prof. Gulam Sheikh’s query about the “Krishna sighting Eid moon” image. Please also forward it to other friends who may be sharing the image with wrong details. Also, those of you who are Prof. Mukhia’s FB friends, could you please check if the post in his name with the wrong attribution for the image is “genuine” — and alert him to this?

B. N. Goswamy: “I must confess that I had not seen this image before, despite being quite familiar with the Bhagavata Purana and this series of paintings from the Tehri-Garhwal collection (painted by one of the members of the first generation after Manaku and Nainsukh). However the present ‘reading’ of it is completely meaningless based as it is, chiefly I think, on the appearance of Nanda who is dressed like a Mughal courtier: with that kind of beard, and wearing a long jama and a sloping turban. The anachronistic impossibility of a Muslim figure to be seen in the Bhagavata Purana or this series apart, this is the way Nanda appears in every single folio of this series whenever we see him! Even in this regard, if one notices from close the jama Nanda wears is clearly a Hindu style jama, tied as it is, in Hindu-fashion, under the left armpit. There is not the slightest doubt about this.

Topped by that is the silly statement that it is a Rajasthani painting! Of course it is not. It is a Pahari painting from the series to which I have referred above. […]

The pointing towards the moon in the sky by Krishna and Balarama seems to be from an obscure passage, possibly in chapter 28 of the tenth skandha, where Krishna, after rescuing Nanda from Varuna who had seized him and taken him to his dominions, leads him and other kinsmen, using his powers of illusion, to a vision of his domains. There, after the rescue, the text says, Krishna “manifested to the cowherds his own realm” which is beyond the range of tamas … One cannot be certain, however; it is not unlikely that the episode occurs more fully in some other rescension of the Purana and not the one generally in circulation.

I have no idea where the present folio is. If it can be located, surely one will find a text on verso, like on other folios of the same series.

Long answer? But hopefully of some use.

Indeed, very useful, but also see the article in the Express. To be honest, I had also thought the image was more Kangra than Rajput, but that was just a superficial impression. The interpretation above, replete as it is with references and with caveats is more along the lines of a collegial note of correction on an over-interpretation of the image. Many of us who shared the image did so without any reference to either the identities of the persons there and without scholarly interpretations. As I said above, we are used to allegories in all our religious texts, and therefore to take everything so literally and to find fault, in of all things, the coexistence of different religions seems extreme. Many people found that the image evoked a memory of the way things were (or we imagine they were, or hoped they were). And I am willing to let it be.

We may well be in a matrix where all pasts and all futures are possible.

Death by Infantilization

The American poet bell hooks might have been speaking about the situation in JNU today: “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”

In my thirty plus years at JNU, I have rarely spoken in a public meeting, but when asked to do so on “What JNU has contributed in the Sciences” on 28 February this year, I felt I must. Partly because it is getting increasingly difficult to fight the losing battle of public perception versus ground reality, and also, because I was provoked by a recent public discussion on Lok Sabha TV, where blatant lies were broadcast, and the participants congratulated each other on their moral positions, each ever so smug and self-righteous.

Day after day there is an article in one or the other medium, with JNU faculty trying their best to explain just what the issues are to those who are not at JNU. This is not a case of “us” explaining to “them”, but there is more than a little schadenfreude in the point of view that cannot see what the fuss is all about. Not to mention a number of articles devolving around what-about-when-X-did-Y-to-Z

jnuNone of which can account for the slow and painful killing of an excellent university. And what lies at the heart of this heinous action is the basic incomprehension of what a modern university is, or indeed what a modern Indian university should be.

When I moved to JNU in 1986, one of the main things that attracted me to the university was that it was a graduate school. The School of Physical Sciences was started that year by then Vice Chancellor P N Srivastava with the idea that it would be a school of studies that recognized no disciplinary boundaries within the physical sciences. Having been at places where (in today’s language) the silos were impenetrable, it seemed like more than a breath of fresh air. For mainly professional reasons and some personal ones, I was happy to move to JNU from the institute I was at in Mumbai.


Some things about JNU seemed wonderful. The size, for one- it seemed to have so many more possibilities with four times the number of teachers and fifty times the number of students, not to mention the acreage, which was about fifty times as large as well. The number of disciplines – there were 8 Schools in JNU then (SIS, SLLCS, SSS, SES, SLS, SCSS, the old ones) and SPS and SAA, the new ones. There were some special Centres as well (some of which are now Schools in their own right), but the academic environment was rich compared to the smaller and more specialist campus I had been a part of in the preceding few years. It was a small matter that many people thought that we were a School of Physical Education, formed along with a School of Arts and Athletics… those were the initial days and we hardly cared.

The atmosphere was even more wonderful. This was a short enough time after 1983, and the memories of the earlier times were strong. The campus was politically alive, and the Ph D students who trickled into the School of Physical Sciences – 4 in 1987, 5 in 1988, maybe 6 or 7 in 1989, and so on – brought in the culture of the rest of the campus into our growing School. Our Ph D students of the early days were mostly all resident in the hostels, so we indirectly got to hear of what was discussed, the issues that were debated, and above all, we got to see first hand what an enabling campus the JNU was. Our students came from a very different demographic than the students at most institutes, and we could see first hand the change that JNU brought about in their lives, as indeed it did in ours.

kk1There were also some not so pleasant aspects of being at JNU. One was the two culture divide, caused in part by the huge disparity in size between the science Schools and the much larger Schools of International Studies, Language, and Social Sciences. The SPS was very small, even after we started the MSc in Physics, in 1991 or 1992. The students were younger and there were more of them, but still we were a mere ripple in the JNU, and some of the rules and regulations that were needed for a small cohort were not always in consonance with what the larger body had decided. But we went along, for the most part happy to be part of a public university, and adapting to the changes that were needed.

One of the most remarkable aspects of JNU was the position of students vis-a-vis the faculty. From the earliest times, the sense of participation of all students in university matters has been complete, be it at the level of governance or at the level of pedagogy- students have been able to participate in decision making, and indeed their opinions have been sought and respected. Most students (other than in the languages, that is) at JNU entered the university after a Bachelor’s degree elsewhere at the very least- and were therefore also adults for the most part. And they were treated as such, in terms of their responsibilities, in terms of our expectations of them, and in the way in which we dealt with them and their various issues.

images.jpegWhich is why, when in 2017 or 2018, the University administration does not condescend to talk to students let alone treat them as sentient beings capable of making their own choices, it seems an aberration. To be fair to the Administration (with the capital A) they do not talk to teachers either – unless one conforms to an archaic mode of conduct- but in the process, the entire University, teachers and students alike, is given the “Daddy knows best” line, and it is up to us to conform.

This process of infantilization is simply unacceptable.

It is tiresome to repeat the arguments of why the attendance issue is being misrepresented, and why it could and should have been done better, so I shall not. But as one who has taught at JNU for the past thirty or so years, I know that the real issue is of learning. Over time, the nature of pedagogy has changed, not just in JNU but also all across the world. The internet, the availability of online material, YouTube, Wikipedia, more books and better libraries- all of this has democratized the classroom as never before. To be sure, teachers are still needed, but our roles have evolved in a fundamental and significant way, something that the purveyors of attendance sheets cannot realize. The focus has to shift to evaluating outcomes fairly, to know what students have acquired and to ensure that they have learned the skills they need and not to ensure that they have 75% attendance. That is simply not the point, and in short, they.just.don’t.get.it.


And regrettably, they cannot realize it because, at a deep and fundamental level, the real reason that they just don’t get it is because they simply are not very capable. It can indeed be difficult to have to cope with not being very good… being  fairly mediocre and knowing it can be a difficult cross to bear. The knowledge also that come what may, try as one might, one is never going to quite make the cut: When mediocrity is coupled with authority, the combination is toxic.

There are many things that need to change in JNU, and those that have lived with it for the past so many years are best placed to advise on what is needed and how best to make the change. The hostels need better administration, for sure. The fees need to be rationalised to a less embarrassing level: the JNU annual tuition fees have not changed in years, the hostel charges are unrealistic, and this is against a backdrop where salaries and scholarships have been growing, keeping pace with the growth of the economy in fair measure. One can list more, indeed several more things that need change, but this should, in the best spirit of the campus, be done through discussion, through debate. Not via edicts, and certainly not under the pretence of having had decisions passed in the Academic Council when they were not. Or by the fabrication, the fraudulent claim that letters of support were strongly endorsed when the eminent alleged signatories simply deny ever having done so.  A shame that it has come down to this.

There is a peculiar stillness in the University today – a disquiet and a lack of enthusiasm that does not bode well. Dialogue is out, and in some sections, so is hope. Many of the things that the old JNU fought for and implemented have been done away with, and the price to be paid is that the campus demographic will change significantly in these few years. And then, there will be no one left to care.

Sunset in Cubatão

cubataoShortly after I moved to New Delhi in 1986, I got to spend six weeks in Campinas, Brazil. On the way to the beach at Guarujá one weekend I drove with some friends through the not so picturesque town of Cubatão, which, as Wikipedia will gladly tell you, was one of the most polluted cities in the world, nicknamed “Valley of Death”, due to births of brainless children and respiratory, hepatic and blood illnesses. High air pollution was killing forest over hills around the city.


It was a dull and soulless city abutting Santos in the state of São Paulo, but the high pollution also threw up so much particulate matter into the atmosphere that it helped to create some really spectacular sunrises and sunsets. My colleague at the University of Campinas, Alfredo, had this idea for his perfect movie noir – Sunset in Cubatão – along the lines of Blade Runner and to my possibly caipirinha fueled imagination it seemed like a great idea. It was the 1980’s after all.

Most of the cities here were not as polluted then, and environmental caution was not a matter of any concern. In the ’90s, when winter fogs became more common in north India, it was more a nuisance with flight schedule disruptions than any matter of serious concern. But the last ten days in Delhi have been a nightmare.

tenorBreathing hurts. The eyes smart, one can feel the acidity (or so I imagine) of the air as it passes through one’s nostrils. It does not smell particularly bad always, but the air is not fresh by any stretch of the imagination.  It is just impossible to take a deep breath and that has ruled out any exercise, even the most modest exertion. Schools were shut last week for a few days, but they have reopened, and there is little indication that serious political intervention is going to take place. The long term effects on us all, and on the environment is worth thinking about, else it may not be long before our city’s Wiki entry includes the epitaph “high air pollution killed Delhi’s urban forests”.

Photo on 13-11-17 at 11.55 AMYesterday, in particular, was very difficult- even in my office in JNU, arguably one of the greener parts of Delhi, wearing a mask made it somewhat easier to breathe. I posted this picture on Facebook and was inundated with invitations to move to Kashmir, Hyderabad, Manipur, Melbourne, and ironically, São Paulo! I hear that things have improved there since the 1980’s so maybe its a good option. Cubatão, here I come!

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.