Friday, July 30, 2010


A response to Arundhati Roy's fulminations...

The Reactionary

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Senior General Than Shwe (the Senior is a self assigned appellation.) This is the man India is wooing -- an unrepentant autocrat and dictator, who has presided over the disgraceful state of affairs in his country Myanmar, banned elections and imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi for almost 20 years. It's a measure of the depths to which our foreign policy has sunk that even George W. Bush's exhortation to us appears more reasonable -- [India and the US] must stand with reformers and dissidents and civil society organizations, and hasten the day when the people of these nations can determine their own future and choose their own leaders”. And here we allow him to visit Rajghat (in deference to Gandhi we are told he didn't wear his military uniform, how touching) and play host to him, arranging his visit to various Buddhist holy sites and hope he will do something to control various insurgent groups that use Myanmar as a base.

All in the name of realpolitik, as a mealy mouthed article by Siddhartha Varadarajan informs us, ending with this almost laughable sentence -- "it should tell the senior general that if he is prepared to liberalise politically, New Delhi will do its bit to help end Myanmar's international isolation."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rahul's Recipes - a new blog!

Some of you may know that I have a Eating Out Guide to Chennai and so I have a more than moderate interest in food. (No, I am NOT a foodie -- I hate that term which out here stands for a hack reporter poorly informed, making the rounds of the local restaurants at some newspaper's expense, and writing inane and pointless information free articles in bad English pretending to be a review.) Over the last almost 25 years (well, ok, never mind my age!) I have collected recipes from all kinds of sources -- parents, aunts, friends, restaurants, books, newspapers -- and have often written them up or cut and pasted (physically, not digitally) in my recipe scrap book. They date all the way back from the time I was thrown into the graduate student world of a US university and had to fend for myself. I have decided to share some of these with the rest of the world -- out of the generosity of my heart :-) but also as a convenient repository of this somewhat eclectic collection. Just to belabour the obvious -- this will not be a restaurant guide for which you will have to consult the site mentioned above, but just a recipe repository. (I will try to update about once a week). Do try them out and let me know how well they work. I should confess that I have tried out about 80% of the recipes (and those work!) but I won't tell you which 20% is untried and untested. Have fun! The link is here and on the right.

I should clarify that these will not be standard recipes copied from Tarla Dalals and Sanjeev Kapoors or even my favourite -- Madhur Jaffrey. Apart from copyright issues, most people have access to such sources and so I will only give you recipes that I have discovered in long lost magazine issues (with proper attribution if available) or out of print books or other sources or by word of mouth.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Who do you write like

If you have low esteem, particularly with regard to your writing skills, despair no more. A site called I Write Like will statistically analyse your writing skills and tell you which famous writer you write like. (yes it is always some well known writer which is a comfort). It's an ideal site for a lazy Sunday afternoon or right after lunch, when the mind is wandering and you find yourself unable to concentrate on serious work.

Of course you are wondering who I write like. Well, it's no secret any more. I always knew I was talented. My Bhopal post is like James Joyce, my Shuttle post is like Arthur C. Clarke (not a surprise) and my Martin Gardner post is, surprise surprise, again like that of James Joyce (Jeez, I didn't know I was so unreadable). (I am not linking to any of these posts -- they are just below the present one).

Of course these are just some statistical black box results. The site does not explain how it does this analysis nor the algorithm used to reach its conclusions. It merely makes the cryptic claim that it's a site "which analyzes your word choice and writing style and compares them with those of the famous writers". However, if you are interested in the more technical details about how this Bayesian analysis works, there is some information here. But I doubt it will leave you any wiser about your talents as a writer!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Satish Joglekar -- in Memoriam

Satish Joglekar of IIT Kanpur died last Saturday. He was feted as a great teacher, but he had also contributed significant papers on the renormalisability of gauge theories. Here is a little note I sent around:

I knew Satish Joglekar only marginally. We met in a few conferences and I was once on a thesis defence committee with him (where it turned out we both had very similar questions about the thesis, mostly regarding some Field Theoretical issues on which he was an expert!) . This note therefore deals not with him as a person, but with his work in Quantum Field Theory, the grammar of High Energy Physics, of which I came to know when I followed him years later to StonyBrook. A solid grounding in QFT was considered absolutely essential for working at ITP, StonyBrook, and it was not surprising that so many important field theoretical works emerged from that institute in the 1970s.

During his years in Stony Brook he had left his mark at the ITP (headed by C. N. Yang). He had written some seminal papers with his thesis advisor Ben Lee. He was much senior to su, so we never overlapped, but the mid 70s when he was in StonyBrook were the hey days of gauge theories and what we today call the Standard Model (and which was still called Weinberg Salam in those days). Most people know of Ben Lee from his famous review on Gauge Theories in Physics Reports (with Abers) which was the only reference at that time for learning about the structure of Spontaneously Broken Gauge Theories. But Ben Lee is also famous for his series of papers (some with Zinn-Justin) on various aspects of renormalisability of SB Yang Mill theories, some of which we struggled mightily to understand as mere graduate students.

Thus it was when Satish Joglekar joined Ben Lee to continue this work on renormalisability in the mid 70s. His first significant paper was titled appropriately "General Theory of Renormalization of Gauge Invariant Operators" and dealt with the crucial issue of non gauge invariant operators mixing with gauge invariant ones under renormalisation. Put briefly, they managed to show that it is possible to choose a basis in which the gauge non invariant operators decouple from the G. I. ones to all orders, which is crucial if one is not to have to calculate the full renormalisation matrix. Even though by present day standards of 'significant papers' this paper has few citations, a mere 172 (!), it was crucial for various aspects of renormalisation and gauge invariance.

His second set of papers which he wrote by himself were a couple on the renormalisability and gauge invariance of products of operators and their OPE. He considered here an unbroken non Abelian gauge theory and asked the question -- which subset of local operators have the property that their physical matrix elements are independent of the gauge parameter. I don't want to go into the details of these issues which may strike some people today as being too formal and esoteric. But the fact that we blithely use OPEs in our calculations is based on many theorems like those he proved, which clarified the issue of ghost mixing in covariant gauges, which in turn revolved around questions about the gauge invariant nature of the counter terms in renormalisation.

By then, Joglekar had moved to Fermilab following his advisor Ben Lee, from StonyBrook. Unfortunately their fruitful collaboration was to end tragically when Ben Lee died in a traffic accident in 1977. Subsequently he wrote a highly cited paper on Trace and Dilatation Anomalies during his post doc years in IAS, Princeton with Collins and Duncan (438 citations) but it appears that the shock of Ben Lee's death had a long lasting traumatic effect on Joglekar, affecting his steady record of publication for a long time.

Satish Joglekar continued to work on the more esoteric aspects of gauge theories. For many, the problems he tackled lacked relevance and topicality. But as a child of the golden era of the gauge theory revolution in Particle Physics of the 1970s to which he had contributed significantly, Joglekar's primary interest continued to lie in the formal nature of the structure of gauge theories of which he was a master practitioner.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The World's Youngest Profession

We all know the world oldest profession (though I never figured why). But the world's youngest comes as a surprise. Robert Boyle financed his experiments out of his own pocket. Isaac Newton was paid to teach, not to research mechanics and gravity. Albert Einstein's famous three papers were written when he was a patent clerk in Berne. Charles Darwin was never paid to do science. The transformation of science from a calling to a paid job is a recent phenomenon -- developed mostly over the last century gaining momentum after World War II.

Stephen Shapin at Seed Magazine traces the development of the scientist over the last century or so, and presents some interesting facts along the way. His analysis concentrates on American science, and it would be useful to know how India fares. For examples, it appears only 9% of Americans feel that their tax dollars should be spent of science research which has no immediate technological or social benefits. Today almost two-thirds of all American science and engineering degree-holders are working either in the for-profit sector or are self-employed; only 9 percent work for colleges or universities. (There seems to be something special about this 9%).

Even pure science has long had a significant presence outside academia. At the origins of corporate research in the early 20th century, big companies such as General Electric, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, and DuPont were the dominant sponsors of industrial science, and although the great majority of their money went to applied research and development, government and academia then supplied so little funding for basic research that most of that too was done in industry. It is now widely said that the research laboratories of big industrial firms are on their way out: The decline and fall of Bell Labs and the so-called “crisis in innovation” in global Big Pharma have both made recent headlines. Yet, if anything, the place of science in the for-profit sector has become more secure due to the past four decades of growth by small, entrepreneurial high-tech and biotech firms, where the boundary between making things and making knowledge is increasingly unclear and even irrelevant, and by the burgeoning commitment to all sorts of scientific research by such companies as Microsoft, Intel, and, most visibly, Google. The commercial sector now does about 70 percent of all American R&D in dollar terms. And while the overwhelming majority of corporate R&D remains biased toward development and applied research, about a fifth of US basic research is still done in industry.
I have no numbers for India, but I think it is obvious that the extent of 'pure science' supported by industrial or other commercial enterprises is negligible. This is clearly the result of our many years of socialism, and, of course has its good side -- scientists have a certain degree of autonomy which might not exist if they worked for commercial labs. (I do not see any industry in India with the kind of vision for unfettered research that the erstwhile Bell Labs had). On the other hand, there are always questions about how far the Indian Government can go to support basic science (this is even more true in my field of High Energy where applications to industry or to society do not exist, at least any time in the near future). And even with generous funding, its nature is highly skewed in the Indian context. Research Labs, IITs, IISERs are generously funded, whereas universities are starved of funds for even the most basic needs. Is the solution to look for at least partial funding (this can happen and is happening in condensed matter and in biology) from private sources and perhaps put up with some kind of partial loss of autonomy? Whatever it is, the article provides some useful talking points about the changing nature of the scientific profession.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

If you can't beat them, join them?

The National Advisory Council of the Government of India has a galaxy of some of the most distinguished social activists, development experts, scientists and bureaucrats that it is possible to find. Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander are well known social and human rights activists, the former a Ramon Magsaysay award winner, Jean Dreze is a well known development economist and one of the early drafters of the NREGA scheme of the Government, apart from being the co-author with Amartya Sen of many books on developmental issues. Madhav Gadgil, Mirai Chatterjee, M. S. Swaminathan and others are equally distinguished in their own fields. The NAC is headed by Sonia Gandhi the UPA chairperson and therefore they may be said to have the ear of arguably the most powerful person in the Congress Party, and consequently the Government.

And yet...

Khap Panchayats and 'ordinary' middle class families in urban areas like Delhi bump off their sons and daughters (and sons-in-law and daughters-in-law) and all that a mealy mouthed Government can do is to set up another Group of Ministers. Unarmed stone throwing mobs (perhaps misguided, perhaps even led astray by separatist forces) are met with lethal force from poorly trained and perhaps trigger happy CRPF jawans instead of standard methods of non lethal crowd control. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act continues to prevail in J&K and the North East. The Government continues to dither about how to handle the Maoists in large parts of central India (where, in a classic reversal of roles, the same poorly trained CRPF force is regularly massacred by a determined and highly motivated adversary -- only in India).

Are we to conclude that the NAC is a purely decorative and toothless body that plays no role in actual Governance issues? In that case why do these people, most of whose commitment to their causes is not in doubt, continue to be in the Council? The Focus Areas that come under its purview strictly would exclude virtually all the above issues. Or does it take its role in the social security agenda so literally that no other issue in the social and political sphere matters to it? The fact that they presumably have Sonia Gandhi's ear should allow them to take a pre-eminent and activist role in the issues facing the Government today. And yet, they are visible audible mostly by their silence.