Monday, May 5, 2008

High Energy Physics and Indian Science

Update<*> My earlier post on T(h)rashing Indian Science has interestingly generated a lively (and civilised) exchange of views. In particular, I would like to quote Sunil Mukhi's comment in relation to high energy physics (since this also happens to be my field and his comment is buried deep inside). He points out that If being a "world-class scientist" is measured against objective standards like being invited to speak at international conferences, having one's work well cited globally, being on editorial boards of leading journals etc, then (from whatever I know) Indian science is doing much better than before. Just to cite the example of TIFR, most particle physicists there failed to qualify on any of the above counts in the 1960's and 70's, but most do qualify on one or more counts today. Further on ... Ashoke represents an incredibly high peak in Indian science, and this is not built on any past glory - to this day he writes dazzling papers literally on a weekly basis. I don't have the space to justify this statement here but please note that he became an FRS two years *before* T.V. Ramakrishnan despite being over a decade younger than him! concluding with I don't want to be seen as saying more than I am. My point is not that Indian science is doing very well on average, merely that we do ourselves the disfavour of forgetting about its successes - something that in no other country would be done so casually. Frankly the glee with which we rush into these "Indian science is dead" discussions strikes me as fratricidal in nature. Of course as some of the other comments have pointed out, what was being discussed was how much Indian science had become text book material . However in the present context, I am not sure this is particularly relevant. What we must strive for is to have vigorous world class research activity at the front lines, not with an eye to posterity wondering whether this or that topic has the potential to make it in a text book of the 22nd century. The other issue that needs attention of course, as Desiraju's article points out, is how to attract more students into pure science courses. These have no easy answers. Having said that, I decided to do some research about High Energy Physics (HEP) in the country just out of curiosity and also, because of this wonderful resource called SPIRES all the data is available at one's fingertips. (Its a pity that no other subject in physics has anything comparable that one could use -- Google scholar is just not complete enough and a bit of hit or miss). I looked at what is called the Top Cite Olympics. (Go to SPIRES --> Playground --> Topcite Olympics). It shows top cited papers per country. (I am aware that these days one is expected to carry out a more nuanced analysis, involving impact factors and H factors but this will do for starters). India ranks 22nd in this list above Brazil and China but below Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Leaving out top cites by virtue of belonging to the usual gigantic HEP experimental collaborations whose discovery papers hit top cites almost instantly, here is the data for India. There is one 1000+ citation, that of Sandip Trivedi et al., (for the now famous KKLT work). For 500+ citations, we have Ashoke Sen (single author), Varun Sahni (with Starobinsky), T. Padmanabhan's review, and Mohammed Sami's work on dark energy (an example of a not so great university affiliation!). China has no 1000+ citations, and no 500+ citations if one leaves out large collaborations. Japan, way above us has 3 1000+ citations of which one is of course the famous Kobayashi Maskawa paper. Taiwan, again ranked above us, makes it by having one paper which is part of the large CTEQ (theory) collaboration. You can take a look at this data here and play around with this yourself. There is also data available for the year 2000. (Incidentally India also has the lowest GDP per capita amongst the top 45 countries listed -- this data is also given!). If a similar picture exists in other branches of physics (and of course other branches of science) it would appear that we are not doing too badly though there is little room for complacency. About work becoming text book material, that is a more difficult call to take. Additionally I think, as I said in the beginning, this does not address the issue of attracting more good students into science. This will involve more concerted effort on our part and I have no ready answers at the moment. <*>Scholars without Borders blog has an analysis of the Indian science situation in the light of the two earlier mentioned articles.

1 comment:

Rahul Siddharthan said...

One point to note is, till recently, Chinese physicists did not want to work in China, so Spires wouldn't pick them up as Chinese (regardless of their actual nationality). (Which is fair enough in my opinion.) Indian physicists, particularly in HEP, have long been happy to work in India, if only at a handful of places.

I've been told by several Chinese people that it is viewed as a sign of failure to return to China after you've studied/postdoc'd/worked in the US. I also met a Chinese woman who was a qualified surgeon but working as a masseuse because her qualifications weren't recognised in the US and it was too disgraceful to return to China.
Things may have changed recently. While Indian scientists have shown some reluctance to return, I think it was never to this extent.

I disagree on the importance of getting into textbooks. If the work is important enough, it must get into, at least, the graduate curriculum. Of course that is different from aiming for the textbooks -- I agree one can't do research with that goal in mind, and it will never work, anyway. I also agree (as I said in your earlier discussion) that it is difficult to judge the permanence (textbook-worthiness) of current work except in exceptional cases. So proxies like citation impact will have to do as immediate measures of quality. By the way, Google Scholar seems not too bad to me, for the few "cited by" lists I clicked on. (Fairly obscure and very up-to-date citations, no duplicates.) In computer science there is citeseer. In biological sciences, Pubmed would seem ideally placed to handle this sort of thing, but doesn't seem to. There's also Web of Science but it's not free.