Monday, October 26, 2009

Ain't kiddin'

All the students at Luolang Elementary School, a yellow-and-orange concrete structure off a winding mountain road in southern China, know the key rules: Do not run in the halls. Take your seat before the bell rings. Raise your hand to ask a question. And oh, yes: Salute every passing car on your way to and from school. And there's more where this came from.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Summerhill, Shimla, is housed in what used to be the Vice Regal Lodge - the summer palace of the Viceroy of India. In keeping with its colonial origins, the building is a grand colonial structure, complete with manicured gardens outside, wood panelled walls inside, wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere and a grand staircase which leads to the upper floor where the offices are located.

The Institute is primarily a social sciences institute, set up by the second President of India, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, and has a large number of visiting fellows in disciplines ranging from political science to philosophy who are encouraged to come and use their time there to study and write a book or monograph or treatise. However the present Director is a very charming forward looking person who would like to bring the social sciences and humanities closer to the sciences (remember C. P. Snow's Two Cultures ?) and therefore encourages scientists to organise meetings there. Thus a meeting on Gravity was held last year and we are organising a meeting on Particle Physics Phenomenology during the teeth-chattering cold of December. Our interaction with the Director and staff there was extremely positive and they are keen to provide all the local facilities needed to host a meeting. They prefer if some general talks are given which are understandable by the social sciences Fellows of the institute. With a guest house capacity of about

35, small meetings are easy to arrange.

The place literally oozes history. Thus, one can see the table where the partition papers were signed during the tripartite conference between the Congress, the Muslim League and the British Government. (The table is also in two parts joined together!) An earlier meeting called by Lord Wavell in the same place and attended by Nehru, Patel, Azad, Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan and others had ended in failure, making India's partition a certainty and there is the historic conference room where this and many other meetings among the various delegates of the political establishment took place in pre-independence India.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Magnetic Monopoles and Magnetricity

Magnetic monopoles have never been seen in nature which makes Maxwell's equations fundamentally asymmetric between electric and magnetic fields, since there is no magnetic equivalent of a single isolated electric charge.

Recently a Nature article by Bramwell et al. show that in a certain kind of magnetically frustrated material called 'spin ice' one can see evidence of 'magnetricity' - a flow of magnetic charges just like electrical charge flow, and understood in terms of a magnetic analogue of the theory of electrolytes. (The material in which this has been observed is dysprosium titanate pyrochlore). The experimentalists actually observe real magnetic currents and are hence able to measure the magnetic charge ('monopole'). This, I believe, is the first example of a system where there is perfect symmetry between electric and magnetic charges. (The popular press has occasionally reported the existence of flux tubes -- dipoles which move independently in certain magnetic materials -- as equivalent to magnetic monopole quasiparticles but the present effect I believe is different -- I would appreciate some comments on these from experts).

One should realise though that this does not change Maxwell's equations in free space. Magnetic monopoles in free space have not been observed yet, except in one un-replicated experiment by Blas Cabrera in 1982. Thus, electromagnetism text books don't need to be revised any time soon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Are most Indian drivers retarded?

I deliberately gave a provocative and non PC title, but do read on...and you can conclude for yourself.

The road I take to office daily is dug up, ostensibly to widen it. Nothing new about that in this city, and that is probably the topic of a future post. But, as a consequence, traffic tends to creep along, sometimes slowing down to a halt altogether. At this point, a bunch of vehicles (they range from MTC buses to autos to fancy shiny cars) decide to make a break for it by getting on to the lane for oncoming traffic in order to beat the jam. Not surprisingly, they immediately block the oncoming traffic and who in turn block these vehicles from going further. The result is a complete grid lock with vehicles unable to proceed in either direction.

Now I am certain that since this happens during rush hour, the people using this stretch are the same people who use it every day to go to work. In other words, the consequences of their actions are there for them to see, day after day after day. And yet, they just don't seem to get the message! Most living creatures, presumably from guinea pigs up, learn, by dint of repetition, to avoid getting involved in an inextricable situation. But clearly not so, Indian drivers.

So what are we to conclude from this?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Marathi Asmita and me

A distinguished blogger in a recent post has deplored the attitude of some lumpen parties in Maharashtra like the MNS and Shiv Sena of trying to force-feed Marathi down the throats of unwilling residents of the state, using extra-judicial methods. In a Parthian shot he has accused me of being a fellow traveller and linked this blog to that statement.

When I clicked on that link it took me to my previous post on NCERT textbooks, leaving me totally mystified. Surely I had said nothing offensive in that post? I read it again carefully and could find nothing that would give offense to even the most thin skinned of non Maharashtrians in Maharashtra.

And then the penny dropped! (I have always been rather slow on the uptake, a trait commented on often by many of my friends and relatives...). He was referring to a long ago post of mine, which essentially defended the actions of local governments whether in Maharashtra or in Tamil Nadu, to promote the use of the local language in signage and communication. (Presumably out of laziness, he had just linked to my blog rather than to that particular post). This along with a couple of comments in the distinguished blogger's posts had been construed as defending the use of sticks and stones, fists and knuckles and other extra-judicial methods, (favourite of the above mentioned parties), as a means of forcing local culture and language on the hapless and recalcitrant non locals of the state ("North Indians" in their derogatory phrase). And it was this that had earned me the appellation of a "fellow traveller".

Tendentious reporting and conclusions are common amongst our numerous news channels and newspapers, and more so in the blogosphere, but it now seems to have affected some of our distinguished bloggers too.

Friday, October 2, 2009

NCERT Textbooks

The Times of India, which most of us in recent years have associated with fluff and half naked women, can, when it puts its mind to it, run some wonderful stories -- leaving its nearest rival here, the Hindu panting way behind. On Gandhi Jayanti day, when N. Ram and his cohorts at the Hindu have been obsessing about China's greatness and its military might, the TOI has a far more relevant, topical and interesting story on the new NCERT textbooks.

The new set of books, designed by the NCERT's primary textbook committee, creates a culturally responsive mathematics curriculum, according to the chair of the committee Anita Rampal -- "(We) have looked at math through the prism of everyday life. Instead of teaching through abstractions, the books tell real-life stories of people so that the youngsters can identify with the characters."

Thus living examples of fish, their shapes and sizes, as well as the capacity of fishing boats off Chennai's coast to teach the principles of maths. Similarly, to make the connection of a map to the aerial photo of a place, they used a photograph of India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan by the celebrated photographer Raghu Rai who was only too willing to give them permission to print it.

One of those feel good stories when there is so much bemoaning about the state of our education system...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Coming soon to a theatre near you

People who think of Dr. Strangelove as a satirical masterpiece on human folly will soon have another treat in store for them, something that will give Dr Strangelove's pre-eminence a run for its money.

The story goes something like this. In a country far far away, the Supreme Chairman, much loved by his people, decides to mount a celebration of his reign in all the pomp and grandeur that the country is capable of. A massive parade, a show of might is organised in the main square. However, the Supreme Chairman, keeping in mind the welfare of his beloved people decrees that people living on the route of the march should not come out into their balconies and verandahs for 24 hours before the march. They are 'advised' not to use binoculars and cameras during the march. (For good measure, and of course keeping in mind the welfare of his citizens, some houses along the route have been evacuated altogether). Then how will the people participate in this great show, which is meant, after all to symbolise the Republic of the People? Well, on television, of course! Students in large numbers, who love their Supreme Chairman deeply, will take part in the march (after being vetted carefully) but are asked not to post pictures of rehearsals, and not to use text messaging. Naturally, and in national interest, pigeons along the route have been exterminated (perhaps they could be used to carry subversive messages?), sale of knives banned, and beggars and the homeless (not that there are such people in this perfect society) have been, uh, 'cleared'.

The march itself, in its discipline and perfection, will put all other countries to shame. Distance between soldiers' noses have been carefully measured and fixed, and needles (yes, needles) fixed to participants' collars so that if a soldier's chin drops by even as much as half an inch, the jab sends it straight back up again. Nothing much be allowed to come in the way of discipline.

Even nature is to be bombarded into submission. If the rain-gods have the temerity to misbehave, planes are to be used to blast the clouds to disperse them. Our Supreme Chairman has left nothing to chance. And on this day, the image of a perfect society will be enhanced by the refusal of the local governments to grant divorces -- warring couples will be asked to wait another day.

So when is this sure-shot Oscar winning movie to be released? Today, Thursday at and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. For more details regarding show timings and other information, see here, here, even here.