The Natural Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Biological Sciences

Wigner, E. P., The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. Commun. Pure Appl. Math., 1960, 13. 

Some years ago, too many for my reckoning, I was invited to contribute an article for a special issue of the journal Current Science (Bangalore), on the use of mathematics in  different scientific disciplines. I had occasion to read the article again after some 15 years, mainly to cannibalize it for a talk I had to give yesterday, I should confess. Some embarrassment is inevitable on reading something one has written some time ago (I have almost never looked at my Ph D thesis, for example) but I thought that some of it could be shared, so here is an abbreviated essay where I have not removed all the dated bits… The title, of course, acknowledges a great thinker and physicist, Eugene Wigner.

An increasingly quantitative approach within the biological sciences has been accompanied by a greater degree of mathematical sophistication. However, there is a need for new paradigms within which to treat an array of biological phenomena such as life, development, evolution or cognition. Topics such as game theory, chaos theory and complexity studies are now commonly used in biology, if not yet as analytic tools, as frameworks within which some biological processes can be understood. In addition, there have been great advances in unravelling the mechanism of biological processes from the fundamental cellular level upwards that have also required the input of very advanced methods of mathematical analysis. These range from the combinatorics needed in genome sequencing, to the complex transforms needed for image reconstruction in tomography. In this essay, I discuss some of these applications, and also whether there is any framework other than mathematics within which the human mind can comprehend natural phenomena.

It is a commonplace that in recent years the biological sciences have gradually become more quantitative. Far from being the last refuge of the nonmathematical but scientifically inclined, the modern biological sciences require familiarity with a barrage of sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques.

By now the role of statistics in biology is traditional, and has been historically derived from the need to systematize a large body of variable data. The relation has been two- sided: biological systems have provided a wealth of information for statisticians and have driven the development of many measures, particularly for determining significance, as in the χ2 or Student’s-t tests. Indeed, Galton’s biometrical laboratory was instrumental in collecting and tabulating a plethora of biological measurements, and these and similar data formed the testing ground for a number of statistical theories.

The role of mathematics in biology is more recent. The phenomenal developments in experimental techniques that have helped to make biology more quantitative have necessitated the applications of a number of different mathematical tools. There have been unexpected and frequently serendipitous applications of techniques developed earlier and in a different context. The widespread use of dynamic programming techniques in computational biology, of stochastic context-free grammars in RNA folding, hidden Markov models for biological feature recognition in DNA sequence analysis, or the theory of games for evolutionary studies are some instances of existing methods finding new arenas for their application. There have also been the mathematics and the mathematical techniques that derive inspiration from biology. The logistic mapping, the discrete dynamical system that is so central to chaos theory, arose first in a model of population dynamics. Attempts to model the human mind have led to the burgeoning field of artificial neural networks, while the theory of evolution finds a direct application in the genetic algorithm for optimisation.

Mathematics is about identifying patterns and learning from them. Much of biology is still most easily described as phenomena. The underlying patterns that appear are nebulous, so extracting a set of rules or laws from the huge body of observations has not always been easy. Or always possible since some experiments (like evolution) are unrepeatable, and separating the essential from the inessential can be very difficult. Detail is somewhat more important in the life sciences: often it has been said that the only law in biology is that to every ‘law’, there is an exception. This makes generalizations difficult: biological systems are more like unhappy families. With the exception of natural selection, there are no clearly established universal laws in biology.

This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the more quantitative physical sciences where the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics has often been commented upon. It might be held that these observations, coming as they do in the twentieth century, comment on a science that has already had about three centuries of development. The earlier stages of the fields that we now call physics or chemistry were also very poorly described by mathematics—there was no general picture beyond a set of apparently unrelated observations, and it required the genius of a Mendeleev, of a Faraday or Maxwell or Einstein to identify the underlying patterns and expose the mathematical structure that lay under some aspects of these fields. This structure made much of the modern physical sciences possible, and led to some of the most accurate verifications of the laws of physics. As predictive theories, relativity and quantum electrodynamics are unparalleled and have achieved astonishing accuracy. In a more complex setting, the seemingly infinite possibilities of organic chemical reactions have found organizational structure in the Woodward–Hoffman rules that combine an elementary quantum mechanics with notions of graph theory to make precise, semiquantitative predictions of the outcome of a large class of chemical reactions. What will it take to similarly systematize biology? Or to rephrase the question, what will the analogous grand theories in biology be?

The inevitable applications of mathematics are those that are a carry-over from the more quantitative physical sciences. As in the other natural sciences, more refined experiments have spearheaded some of these changes. The ability to probe phenomena at finer and finer scales reduces some aspects of biology to chemistry and physics, which makes it necessary to borrow the mathematics that applies there, often without modification. For instance, tomographic techniques rely on a complicated set of mathematical transforms for image reconstruction. These may be largely unknown to the working biologist who uses NMR imaging, but are a crucial component of the methodology, nonetheless. Similarly, the genome revolution was catalysed by the shotgun sequencing strategy which itself relied on sophisticated mathematics and probability theory to ensure that it would work. Several of the problems in computational biology arose (or at least were made more immediate, and their resolution more pressing) by the very rapid increase in experimental power.

The other sort of application of mathematics is, for want of a better descriptor, a systems approach, namely that which is not predicated by the reductionist approach to biology but instead by a need to describe the behaviour of a biological entity in toto.

Even the simplest living organisms appear to be complex, in way that is currently poorly described and poorly understood, and much as one would like, it is not possible to describe in all totality the behaviour of a living organism in the same way as one can the behaviour of, say, a complex material. The promise that there could be mathematical models that capture the essence of this complexity has been held out in the past few decades by several developments, including that of inexpensive computational power which has made possible the study of more realistic models of biological systems. Theoretical developments—cellular automata, chaos theory, neural networks, self-organization— have provided simple mathematical models that seem to capture one or the other aspect of what we understand as ‘complexity’, which itself is an imprecise term. There is one class of applications of mathematical or physical models to biology which attempt to adapt an existing technique to a problem, while another aims to develop the methods that a given problem needs. Each of these approaches have their own value and appeal. In the next sections of this article, I discuss some of the ways in which they have found application in the study of biological systems.

Hamming, R. W., The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, Am. Math. Monthly, 1980, 87.

The resonance of the title with those of the well-known essays by Wigner and Hamming is deliberate, as is the dissonance. There are applications in the physical sciences where knowledge of the underlying mathematics can provide very accurate predictions. Comparable situations in the biological sciences may not arise, in part because it may be unnecessary, and in part because biological systems are inherently unpredictable since they are so fundamentally complex. The demands, as it were, that are made of mathematics in the life and physical sciences are very distinct, and therefore, it is very reasonable that the mathematics that finds application in the two areas can also be very different.

Is there any framework other than mathematics within which we can systematize any knowledge? Recent advances in cognitive studies, as well as information that is now coming from the analysis of genomes and genes, suggest that several aspects of human behaviour is instinctual (or ‘hardwired’). That mathematical reasoning is an instinct that we are endowed with is a distinct possibility, and therefore, it may not be given to us (as a species) to comprehend our world in any other manner. This point of view, that it is very natural that we should use mathematics to understand any science, is explored below.

In the last few years there has been a veritable explosion in the study of complex systems. The concept of complexity is itself poorly defined (‘the more complex something is, the more you can talk about it’ ), and as has been pointed out by others, ‘If a concept is not well-defined, it can be abused.’ Nevertheless, there is some unity in what studies of complexity aim to uncover.

A common feature of many complex systems is that they are composed of many interconnected and interacting subunits. Many systems, natural as well as constructed, are, in this sense complex. Examples that are frequently cited apart from those involving living organisms such as ecologies or societies, are the human brain, turbulent flows, market economies or the traffic. A second feature of complex systems is that they are capable of adaptation and organization, and these properties are a consequence of the interconnection and interactions of the subunits. The mathematics of complex systems would thus appear a natural candidate for application to biology. The drawback is that there is, at present, no unifying framework for the study of complex systems although there are some promising leads offered by studies of dynamical systems, cellular automata and random networks.

That the description of phenomena at one level may be inadequate or irrelevant at another has been noted for a long time. Thus the electronic structure of atoms can be understood quite adequately without reference to quarks, and is itself irrelevant, for the most part, when dealing with the thermodynamics of the material of which the atoms are constituents. Schrödinger, in a chapter of his very influential book (Schrödinger, E., What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1967) entitled ‘Is Life Based on the Laws of Physics’, observed that with regard to ‘the structure of living matter, that we must be prepared to finding it working in a manner that cannot be reduced to the ordinary laws of physics’. He further contrasted the laws of physics and chemistry, most of which apply in a statistical sense, to biological phenomena, which, even though they involve large numbers of atoms and molecules, nevertheless have nothing of the uncertainty associated with individual properties of the constituent atoms. Indeed, given a radioactive atom, he says, ‘it’s probable lifetime is much less certain than that of a healthy sparrow’.

But even at a given level, it frequently happens that the properties of a system cannot be simply inferred from those of its constituents. The feature of emergence, namely the existence of properties that are characteristic of the entire system but which are not those of the units, is a common feature of systems that are termed complex.

Distinction should be drawn between the complex and the complicated, though this boundary is itself poorly defined. For instance, it is not clear whether or not in order to be deemed complex, a system requires an involved algorithm (or set of instructions). The algorithmic complexity, defined in terms of the length of the (abstract) program that is required is of limited utility in characterizing most systems

starlingAttempts to decode the principles that govern the manner in which new properties emerge—for example the creation of a thought or an idea, from the firing of millions of neurons in the brain, or the cause of a crash in the stock market from the exit poll predictions in distant electoral constituencies—require new approaches. The principles themselves need not necessarily be profound. A simple example of this is provided by a study of flocking behaviour in bird flight. A purely ‘local’ rule: each bird adopts the average direction and speed of all its neighbours within distance R, say, is enough to ensure that an entire group adopts a common velocity and moves in unison. This behaviour depends on the density of birds as well as the size of R relative to the size of a bird in flight. If R is the size of a bird, then each bird flies on its own path, regardless of its neighbours: there is no flock. However, as R increases to a few times that of the bird, depending on the density, there can be a phase transition, an abrupt change from a random state to one of ordered, coherent, flight. And such a system can adapt rapidly: we have all seen flocks navigate effortlessly through cities, avoiding tall buildings, and weaving their way through the urban landscape at high speed.

boulezBut there are other aspects of complexity. A (western) orchestra, for instance, consisting as it does of several musicians, requires an elaborate set of rules so that the output is the music that the composer intended: a set of music sheets with the detailed score, a proper setting wherein the orchestra can perform, a specific placement of the different musical instruments, and above all, strict obedience to the conductor who controls what is played and when. To term this a complex system would not surprise anyone, but there is a sense in which such a system is not: it cannot adapt. Should the audience demand another piece of music, or music of another genre, an orchestra which has not prepared for it would be helpless and could not perform. Although the procedure for creating the orchestra is undoubtedly complicated, the result is tuned to a single output (or limited set of outputs). There is, of course, emergence: a single tuba could hardly carry a tune, but in concert, the entire orchestra creates the symphony.

Models like this illustrate some of the features that complex systems studies aim to capture: adaptability, emergence and self-organization, all from a set of elementary rules. The emphasis on elementary is deliberate. Most phenomena we see as complex have no obvious underlying conductor, no watchmaker, blind or not who has implemented this as part of a grand design (Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, Norton, New York, 1996). Therefore, in the past few decades, considerable effort has gone into understanding ‘simple’ systems that give rise to complex behaviour.

logistic‘Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics’, a review article published in 1976 (May, R. M., Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics. Nature, 1976, 261, 459) was responsible in great measure for the phenomenal growth in the study of chaotic dynamics. In this article—which remains one of the most accessible introductions to chaos theory— May showed that the simplest nonlinear iterative dynamical systems could have orbits that were as unpredictable as a coin-toss experiment. The thrust of much work in the past few decades has been to establish that complex temporal behaviour can result from simple nonlinear dynamical models. Likewise, complex spatial organization can result from relatively simple sets of local rules. Taken together, this would suggest that it might be possible to obtain relatively simple mathematical models that can capture the complex spatiotemporal behaviour of biological systems. 

A number of recent ambitious programs (eCell, A multiple algorithm, multiple timescale simulation software environment, intend to study cellular dynamics, metabolism and pathways in totality, entirely in silico. Since the elementary biochemical processes are, by and large, well-understood from a chemical kinetics viewpoint, and in some cases the details of metabolic pathways have also been explored, entire genomes have been sequenced and the genes are known, at least for simple organisms, the attempt is to integrate all this information to have a working computational model of a cell. By including ideas from network theory and chemical kinetics, the global organization of the metabolic pathway in E. coli has been studied computationally. This required the analysis of 739 chemical reactions involving 537 metabolites and was possible for so well-studied an organism, and the model was also able to make predictions that could be experimentally tested. The sheer size of the dynamical system is indicative of the type of complexity that even the simplest biological organisms possess; that it is even possible for us to contemplate and carry out studies of this magnitude is indicative of the analytic tools that we are in a position to deploy to understand this complexity.  

In recent years, there has been considerable debate, and an emerging viewpoint, that the human species has an instinct for language. Champions of this school of thought are Chomsky, and most notably, Steven Pinker who has written extensively and accessibly on the issue

Pinker, S., The Language Instinct, Morrow, New York, 1994

The argument is elaborate but compelling. It is difficult to summarize the entire line of reasoning that was presented in The Language Instinct, but one of the key features is that language is not a cultural invention of our species (like democracy, say), but is hard-wired into our genome. Like the elephant’s trunk or the giraffe’s neck, language is a biological adaptation to communicate information and is unique to our species.

Humans are born endowed with the ability for language, and this ability enables us to learn any specific language, or indeed to create one if needed. Starting with the work of Chomsky in the 1950s, linguists and cognitive scientists have done much to understand the universal mental grammar that we all possess. (The use of stochastic context-free grammars in addressing the problem of RNA folding is one instance of the remarkable applicability of mathematics in biology.) At the same time, however, our thought processes are not language dependent: we do not think in English or Tamil or Hindi, but in some separate and distinct language of thought termed ‘mentalese’.

Language facilitates (and greatly enriches) communication between humans. Many other species do have sophisticated communication abilities—dolphins use sonar, bees dance to guide their hive mates to nectar sources, all birds and animals call to alarm and to attract, ants use pheromones to keep their nestmates in line, etc.—and all species need to have some communication between individuals, at least for propagation. However, none of these alternate instances matches anything like the communication provided by human language.

It is not easy to separate nature from nurture, as endless debates have confirmed, but one method for determining whether or not some aspect of human behaviour is innate is to study cultures that are widely spaced geographically, and at different stages of social development. Such cross-cultural studies can help to identify those aspects of our behaviour that are a consequence of environment, and those that are a consequence of heredity. The anthropologist Donald Brown (Brown, D., Human Universals, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1991) has attempted to identify human ‘universals’, a set of behavioural traits that are common to all tribes on the planet.

All of us share several traits beyond possessing language. As a species we have innumerable taboos relating to sex. Some of these, like incest avoidance, appear as innate genetic wisdom, but there are other common traits that are more surprising. Every culture, from the Inuit to the Jarawa, indulges in baby talk. And everybody dreams. Every tribe however ‘primitive’, has a sense of metaphor, a sense of time, and a world view. Language is only one (although perhaps the most striking) of human universals. Other universals that appear on the extensive list in his book, and which are more germane to the argument I make below, are conjectural reasoning, ordering as cognitive pattern (continua), logical notions, numerals (counting; at least ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’) and interpolation.

The last few mentioned human universals all relate to a set of essentially mathematical abilities. The basic nature of enumeration, of counting, of having a sense of numbers is central to a sense of mathematics and brings to mind Kronecker’s assertion, ‘God made the integers, all else is the work of man’. The ability to interpolate, to have a sense of a continuum (more on this below), also contribute to a sense of mathematics, and lead to the question: Analogous to language, do humans possess a mathematics instinct?

Poincaré, H., Mathematics and Science: Last Essays,
Dover, New York, 1963.

Writing a century ago, Poincaré had an inkling that this might be the case. ‘… we possess the capacity to construct a physical and mathematical continuum; and this capacity exists in us before any experience because, without it, experience properly speaking would be impossible and would be reduced to brute sensations, unsuitable for any organization;…’ The added emphasis is mine; the observations are from the concluding paragraph of his essay, ‘Why space has three dimensions’.

If mathematics is an instinct, then it could have evolved like any other trait. Indeed, it could have co-evolved with language, and that is an argument that Keith Devlin has made recently (Devlin, K., The Maths Gene, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2000).

At some level, mathematics is about finding patterns and generalizing them and about perceiving structures and extending them. Devlin suggests that the ability for mathematics resides in our ability for language. Similar abstractions are necessary in both contexts. The concept of the number three, for example, is unrelated either to the written or spoken word three, or the symbol 3 or even the more suggestive alternate, III. Mathematical thought proceeds in its version of mentalese.

An innate mathematical sense need not translate into universal mathematical sophistication, just as an innate language sense does not translate into universal poetic ability. But the thesis that we have it in the genes begs the question of whether mathematical ability confers evolutionary advantage, namely, is the human race selected by a sense for mathematics?

Wilson, E. O., Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, A. A. Knopf,
New York, 1998.

To know the answer to this requires more information and knowledge than we have at present. Our understanding of what constitutes human nature in all its complexity is at the most basic level. The sociobiologist E. O. Wilson has been at the vanguard of a multidisciplinary effort toward consilience, gathering a coherent and holistic view of current knowledge which is not subdivided in subdisciplinary approaches. This may eventually be one of the grand theories in biology, but its resolution is well in the future. We need to learn more about ourselves.

Traditionally, any sense of understanding physical phenomena has been based on having the requisite mathematical substructure, and this tradition traces backward from the present, via Einstein, Maxwell and Newton, to Archimedes and surely beyond.

Such practice has not, in large measure, been the case in biology. The view that I have put forth above ascribes this in part to the stage of development that the discipline finds itself in at this point in time, and in part, to the manner in which biological knowledge integrates mathematical analysis. The complexity of most biological systems, the competing effects that give rise to organization, and the dynamical instabilities that underlie essentially all processes make the system fundamentally unpredictable, all require that the role played by mathematics in the biological sciences is of necessity very different from that in the physical sciences.

Serendipity can only occasionally provide a ready-made solution to an existing problem whereby one or the other already developed mathematical method can find application in biology. Just as, for example, the research of Poincaré in the area of dynamical systems gave birth to topology, the study of complex biological systems may require the creation of new mathematical tools, techniques, and possibly new disciplines.

F1.largeOur instincts for language and mathematics, consequences of our particular evolutionary history, are unique endowments. While they have greatly facilitated human development, it is also worth considering that there are modes of thought that may be denied to us, as Hamming has observed , similar to our inability to perceive some wavelengths of light or to taste certain flavours. ‘Evolution, so far, may possibly have blocked us from being able to think in some directions; there could be unthinkable thoughts.’ In this sense, it is impossible for us to think non-mathematically, and therefore there is no framework other than mathematics that can confer us with a sense of understanding of any area of inquiry.

In biology, as Dobzhansky’s famous statement goes, nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution. To adapt this aphorism, even in biology nothing can really make sense to us except in the light of mathematics. The required mathematics, though, may not all be uncovered yet.


The Burning of Lyons

letters-from-a-stoic-original-imaefcp7sbhzqx68I have stopped relying on serendipity; this has been replaced over the years by a firm belief in the hidden hand that unbeknownst to me puts things in my way, gives subtle signs, and guides me forward.

A case in point was a chance reading of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, an unlikely book for me to pick up early on a winter’s morning. Of course it might be said that a cold, foggy, and bleak morning is precisely the time to read about stoicism, but flipping through the pages, I came across his Letter 91, On the Lesson to be Drawn from the Burning of Lyons. The power of his writing aside, I am sorely tempted by the allegorical these days where everything is a metaphor for something else, something more immediate and more relevant.

The burning of Lyons so many centuries ago … the arson attacks on our public institutions … the erosion of trust, the destruction of edifices constructed with so much effort … all as one.

The value of reading Seneca is not just to draw moral lessons from the stoic philosophy, to control anger and passion in the face of so much provocation, but also to draw upon that wisdom and the hopes infused in that letter, written so many years ago.

The calamity, the fire that has wiped out the colony of Lyons, becomes in these days the calamity that has destroyed a great University, a great public institution. As Seneca says of the burning of Lyons, “Such a calamity might upset anyone at all, not to speak of a man who dearly loves his country. But this incident has served to make him inquire about the strength of his own character, which he has trained, I suppose, just to meet situations that he thought might cause him fear. I do not wonder, however, that he was free from apprehension touching an evil so unexpected and practically unheard of as this, since it is without precedent. […] Fortune has usually allowed all men, when she has assailed them collectively, to have a foreboding of that which they were destined to suffer.

Somehow, we have all been just as unprepared for an evil so unexpected. So many great schools, to rewrite the Senecan text, any one of which would make a single institution famous, were wrecked in one term and with so little foreboding. And the strangeness of it all, the obscurity of purpose, adds immeasurably to the weight of this calamity, the death of a University.

Of course I talk of our public Universitites, JNU in particular, of which I have talked earlier, and am not able to not talk about either. I continue to be surprised by the rapidity with which the spirit of the University has been crushed. Not for this institution, arguably a fine and great creation, “to be granted a period of reprieve before its fall.”

And the effect of this conflagration will last long – those who remember the old Lyons will not forget those who helped burn it down. And they, the ones that burn it now will not be able to forget what they have done.chance

As Seneca says, “nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen. […] Chance chooses some new weapon by which to bring her strength to bear against us, thinking we have forgotten her.”

Stoicism therefore seems a wise strategy to follow. In the past few years, every time one has thought that the worst was over, some new horror has been thrust upon us. We should, as Seneca notes, therefore reflect upon all contingencies, and should fortify our minds against the evils which may possibly come.

Like Machiavelli’s or Kautilya’s, some of Seneca’s writings are lessons in leadership, notably his advice to Nero, On Mercy. And there are bits of this essay that advise leaders, as well as others. Commenting on the rapidity with which disastrous changes can be wrought, his observation that Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed by a single day is a timeless warning against hubris, a warning that the present dispensations might well heed. And others as well.

untitledSeneca’s own life was so filled with contradictions that he was quite attuned to the fickleness of fortune and very sensitive to the whims of successive Roman Emperors, at least two of who – Caligula and Nero – who had ordered him to commit suicide… Therefore let the mind be disciplined to understand and to endure its own lot, and let it have the knowledge that there is nothing which fortune does not dare – that she has the same jurisdiction over empires as over emperors, the same power over cities as over the citizens who dwell therein. We must not cry out at any of these calamities. Into such a world have we entered, and under such laws do we live. If you like it, obey; if not, depart whithersoever you wish. Cry out in anger if any unfair measures are taken with reference to you individually; but if this inevitable law is binding upon the highest and the lowest alike, be reconciled to fate, by which all things are dissolved.

There is also hope in the stoic outlook. Already there are signs that some changes are afoot. Like Lyons, which eventually was rebuilt, “to endure and, under happier auspices, for a longer existence!“, maybe we will bounce back, and the JNU of the future will be an even  better University. Inshallah!

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 the 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:

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’


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!