Thursday, June 30, 2011

Civil society and its concerns

Civil society has been much in the news recently, thanks to the Lok Pal bill, Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev and the rest. Members of the civil society have been, perhaps justifiably, taking pride in the fact that they have been successful in making their voices heard. Therefore, this seems to be a good point to discuss who actually constitutes civil society, and more importantly, who does it in effect, exclude, and how does the composition of civil society affect its concerns.

To argue this out, it is necessary to identify who is excluded from this collection. To take a few examples, the urban working class, the rural population, the middle and lower ends of the caste hierarchy, and for that matter, the political class, all clearly do not belong to the conglomerate defined above, and have an entirely different agenda. As a simple example of this, it is hard to imagine that the excluded collection would have the kind of interest in the joint entrance exam of the IIT-s that the included fraction does. After all, only about four lakh students take the entrance examination every year, out of our population of one billion plus (it's pointless even to discuss the statistical significance of the 16,000 who actually get in), however, discussions of the entrance exam, however well argued or otherwise, occupy an entirely disproportionate amount of newspaper space, as compared to the concerns of the dispossessed.

So what should civil society do? Maybe it could broaden its outlook. Its current agenda may be all right, but it is narrow, and might even turn out to be self-serving (any bets on which class of society the Lok Pal will come from, if ever we get one?). It is a pity that the agenda of the elite leaders of society is so limited. There was a time when this was not so, and the leaders of civil society looked outwards to the requirements and aspirations of the entire country, and not just to those of people like themselves. This time was before independence, when the elite spearheaded both social reforms, and political movements, and managed to carry the country with themselves. Is it a pipe dream to hope that such a time will come again?

Confession: This blog post was inspired by a recent article by P. Sainath in the Hindu. Do see the article. The Reds do occasionally get something right, especially on issues which are not of any interest to Beijing, and hence do not come with any predefined policy!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Things that go bump in the data, and live computing

It is time to report again on the bump in the Tevatron data at Fermilab. In April, Fermilab had reported that there was an unexpected bump in the total number of events that produce a W boson and two jets. This bump could not be explained by the standard model. The data was greeted with enthusiasm by some model builders, who rushed to build theories, and scepticism by others, who pointed out that it could be explained by a simple miscalibration of jet energies. However, it was universally agreed that the effect, which was a 3-sigma effect, needed further data before it could be supported or dismissed. Well, further data is now in from the CDF experiment at Fermilab, and the effect hasn't gone away. Instead, it is now a 5-sigma effect (well, 4.8-sigma, if you want to be picky). While the hard headed await further data from other sources like the LHC, phenomenologists have not found it too hard to come up with models that account for the bump. Some of the attempts include the proposal of a new vector boson Z', that needs to be leptophobic (i.e. not decay into leptons, but only into quarks). Aficionados of supersymmetry have come up with a sbottom decaying into a stop, but there are numerous other contenders. Here are the references for the technically inclined.

Theorists versus the CDF bump;

CDF: Wjj bump almost 5 sigma!!!

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, researchers at Caltech have managed to manipulate strands of DNA into computing a square root. There's a really cute video at

DNA takes square roots

It looks like there are exciting times ahead for scientists of varied interests. It makes for a pleasant change from the days of the doldrums.

Update (11/06/11): Whoops! This is a real roller-coaster ride. The D0 data at the Tevatron, now finds no bump at the earlier reported energies. More info on this when it comes out.

(12/6/11) Here is the way it pans out, as of today. The CDF data shows a clear bump in the distribution of events in the neighbourhood of 150 GeV. The D0 data, carrying out similar analysis shows no bump in this range. The clearest discussion that I found of this is here. The rest awaits further data and analysis.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.