Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Masters of Music

The Jazz Master, Dave Brubeck, passed away last week at the age of 92 (well, one day before his 92nd birthday). Brubeck, the son of a rancher father and a mother with a strong background in classical piano, brought his unusual background to everything that he did.His mother did not allow him to listen to the radio, because she thought the best way to enjoy music was to play it. His father sent him to veterinary college, but his teachers threw him out and sent him to their school of music, where his heart clearly lay. The music school appreciated his prodigious talent, and gave him a degree, after making him swear that he would never teach music, as being cross-eyed, he couldn't read music. College was followed by a stint in the army, where he ended up accompanying Red Cross travelling shows, and admiring commanding officers made sure he was kept away from the front. After the war Brubeck went back to college to complete his education in music, and then went out to form a series of highly successful jazz octets, trios and quartets. Despite a near fatal swimming accident, which left him with a minor nerve disorder for many years, Brubeck attained great popularity and critical acclaim, although there were  carpers who called him `bombastic' and plain 'stolid'.

Brubeck's uniqueness lay in  his fascination and experimentation with time signatures, which is said to have been picked from his exposure to different kinds of music during his trip to the Middle East, and India, in 1958. One of the most famous of his pieces, Take 5, is featured in this video.This piece became very well known all over the world, and inspired versions of the original everywhere. The most recent version, and the one he thought the most innovative, was played using instruments like the sitar and the tabla, by Pakistani musicians who had lost their livelihood thanks to General Zia Ul Haq's suppression of  the Pakistani film and music industries, and is featured here.

Brubeck's wife Iola collaborated with him as a lyricist and librettist in a number of his musical ventures, and four of his sons grew up to become musicians. He was an unwavering proponent of racial integration and was a little embarassed that he was the second Jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, (Louis Armstrong was the first), and felt that Duke Ellington had been more deserving of the honour, and had lost it due to racial considerations. Brubeck remained an active musician till the end of his life. His most recent concert was in November 2010, soon after his heart surgery. A major bash had been planned for his 92nd birthday, and got converted to a memorial event on his death.

Barely had this post been up for a few hours, when the terrible news came that another master of music had left us. The sitar maestro Ravi Shankar passed away today, also at the age of 92. The facts of his life are sufficiently well known to Indians to not need any reminders from bloggers, so we will just remember him the way we saw him last, at the Music Academy in Chennai with his eldest son Shubho Shankar. It was one of the rare occasions when the two played together.  They played their first raga, then a short piece, and then Ravi Shankar took the mike, and said, with his mischievous smile, `I know you Chennaiites like to go home early, so I will play just one more raga'. And they played just one more raga, for the next four hours, and was it beautiful! The crackers were bursting for the New Year when they finished, and we went out in the early morning.  It was an occasion to remember.

The musicians are  gone, the music plays on. R.I.P.

Dave  Brubeck once explained  what jazz meant to him. “One of the reasons I believe in jazz,” he said, “is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same anyplace in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear.” (Source: N.Y. Times, 5/12/2012).

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

We thank Gautam Menon for sending us the link of the Sachal studios version of Take 5.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A hanging

A notable hanging took place last week. Ajmal Kasab, the butcher of Bombay, the only survivor of the group of ten attackers of 26/11, was hanged in Yerawada jail, with tight security and the utmost secrecy, after the due process of law had run its course. The nation woke on the morning of 21 st November to find the news of the hanging running across the ticker tape of the morning's news, just as they had seen the news of the attacks, and the never to be forgotten image of Kasab, swaggering with an automatic gun, dealing out death in all directions at Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus, in 2008. Both the Home Minister of Maharashtra, R.R. Patil and the Home Minister of India, Sushil Kumar Shinde, soon came on TV to confirm the news, each emphasising that the judicial process had been carried out to its last step.

The execution provoked mixed reactions, from the public, as well as the near and dear ones of the victims. There were those who experienced closure, and those, notably the father of the NSG commando Sandeep Unnikrishnan, who died in action in countering this operation, who said no one's death can be rejoiced over even if it was a legal necessity. It was universally agreed that Kasab, agent of death as  he was, was only a puppet, and his deadly puppet masters, the real perpetrators of terror, remained  at large, and outside the reach of justice. However, it could be said that justice had been done, even if in small and partial measure. It is interesting to remember, that George Orwell, the writer of the original As I Please, had written a piece with an identical title, a hanging. We wonder what his take would have been, on the case at hand. His customary clarity of thought might have yielded useful insight on the moral morass of the efficacy of capital punishment, even for a case like this. Meanwhile the debate goes on from the newspapers to the tea stalls.

This Monday, it will be four years from those three days of horror, that left 164 people dead, and a city shattered, but proud of the quiet heroism of its ordinary citizens. In their memory,

 "And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been".

We won't forget.
This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

For an earlier post  by Rahul Basu on the Mumbai attacks see this link.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cyclone Nilam

Here is a highly local one. Cyclone Nilam is approaching Chennai rapidly. It's been raining since morning. The streets are full of water, although our local drainage has held up so far, no waterlogging, merely the usual potholes full of water. However, the eye of the storm passes us only tomorrow evening, so who knows what the situation will be tomorrow.  If past experience is any guide, there was the year we were marooned on an island, viz. our fourth floor flat, and all the neighbourhood kids had a wonderful time with a boat. There was also the year when two evacuations were necessary thanks to cyclone Nisha (see here). There was another year when the municipal authorities released water from the lake and it overflowed in the streets, so that the main roads became waterways. That was the same year that my first year class phoned to report that they were marooned in their hostel, and could class be cancelled? (They had boats, but paper ones! Judging by the background noise, a great time was being had by all.  They were only nineteen, after all!)        

Here's Nilam. She looks pretty fierce and is approaching pretty fast, 100 kmph,  and will hit us sometime tomorrow evening, as per the met office.  Hopefully, Nilam will wander off into the Bay of Bengal, as other cyclones  have, in the past, and leave us in peace! Watch this space for further updates. Meanwhile, bring out the candles.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte.

Update: Nilam came and went. It saw landfall at about 5.30 p.m on Wednesday evening. There were very strong winds from 4.00 p.m to 9.30 p.m, when, as it happens, all of us were trying to get home with varying degrees of adventure. TNEB tripped the power supply till morning, at least in our parts. This was inconvenient,  but no one got electrocuted at least. Many idiot thrill seekers stood on the beach, watching an oil tanker run aground, and its life boat, which had 22 people in it, capsize. The fishermen, valiant guardian angels of Chennai's treacherous shores,  managed to rescue quite a few, but six are still missing. The threatened rains did not arrive. Life was normal from this morning. In short, cyclone Nilam was a phuska bar (failed firework). We are truly thankful for this failure!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Birthday wishes!

In a country where the birthdays of political leaders are celebrated with much pomp and fanfare (think Mayawati!) , there was a quiet birthday celebration last week. Of course, the nature of the celebration was appropriate for the personality of the birthday person, India's third longest serving prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Singh completed 80 years of his life on 26th September, although this is only notionally his birthday. The events of his life are a true indication  of the extent to  which chance and destiny shapes even the lives of highly able and intelligent people.

Manmohan Singh was born in 1932 in the district of  Gah, now  in Pakistan, and came over with his family to India in 1947, like many other families displaced by partition. He studied economics at Panjab University, then in Hoshiarpur, and excelled as a student, leading to postgraduate studies, and a Ph.D. at Oxford. His initial career was that of a distinguished academic and U.N. official,  and his mild mannered demeanour is still consistent with that phase.However, fate had planned for him a larger role in the life of the nation. Lalit Narain Mishra, who then headed the Ministry of Foreign Trade, inducted him as economic adviser to the ministry. Then the distinguished bureaucratic positions came one after the other, including stints at the Planning commission and as Governor of the Reserve bank. Then fate stepped in again. The economic crisis of 1991, brought Manmohan Singh in as Finance minister to initiate, implement and preside over the economic liberalisation of India. The rest was history.  Under the new policies, the nation made strides that would have looked unbelievable, just a decade  before. That, however, was far from being the end of his tryst with destiny. In 2004,Sonia Gandhi, having led the United Progressive Alliance to a convincing victory, decided not to take up electoral office, leaving the Prime Ministership to the soft spoken Singh.In 2005, under Singh's prime ministership came the historic Indo-US nuclear deal, which finally accepted India's membership to the exclusive nuclear club, and ended the era of international nuclear sanctions. This was another historic moment in the life of the nation, and again it took place under Singh's stewardship.                                                       

The year 2009 saw the UPA return to power again, with Singh again as the prime minister. However, recent times have not been happy. The government has been plagued by scandal after scandal, by insurgency and strife, by terrorism and destruction. The worlds' economies have taken a beating with the inevitable consequences for India, a slowing down of growth, and a serious dampening of the optimism that the nation had enjoyed, about its own  future, since the nineties. The prime minister's own image has taken a beating, with the press and the public having turned hostile to a once admired figure. Is this the end, or will the tide turn again? Singh has come back, with a new slew of measures, and some bitter pills, going some way towards fulfilling the promises left to keep. Whether or not the measures will work, only time can tell. Meanwhile we can only hope they will, otherwise the doomsday prophets and the vultures will be proved right. Best of luck, Dr. Singh, for a steady hand at the wheel. You need it, and so do we!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Neil Armstrong 05/08/1930-25/08/2012

Last weekend brought around the news of another take-off. Neil Armstrong, the first man from Earth to step on another celestial body, left this earth forever on August 25th. To anyone who had watched the grey, grainy footage of two men in bulky astronaut gear moving awkwardly on the powdery surface at the edge of the Sea of Tranquility, on July 21, 1969, it is the end of an era of exploration and excitement. The unmanned planetary probes of the present day, despite their utility and ingenuity are not quite the same.

 The man who said, `This is a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind', (and is widely suspected of having fluffed his lines), was a more than worthy representative of the species. An aeronautical engineer, a crack test pilot, a Korean war hero, a veteran astronaut,   a good family man, and a boy scout to boot (he even sent greetings to his local scout troupe from Columbia,  the mission ship of Apollo 11), he was an embodiment of the American dream. After his historic mission, he held senior administrative positions in NASA, but found them tedious, and left NASA for a professorship in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, as well as the directorship of several companies.  His loss is mourned by not just his immediate family, but by everyone who has looked at the sky and recalled that mankind is no longer confined to this Earth.

Rest in Peace.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao. 

For a song of those times, click here.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ashoke Sen wins the Milner prize

Of course it is already there in all the newspapers, but this blog is particularly delighted to report that the Indian string theorist Prof. Ashoke Sen is one of the first recipients of the new Yuri Milner Prize for Fundamental Physics. This is a prize to honour path breaking research in areas of theoretical physics. The prize is worth 3 million dollars to each recipient, nine of them this year. However, as Ashoke pointed out in a very down to earth interview in the Times of India, the purpose of the prize is  to bring recognition to fundamental work in theoretical physics. Unlike the Nobel which requires experimental verification of proposed hypothesis, the Fundamental Prize does not and, in doing so, it urges physicists to take inspired leaps that might not be immediately verifiable.

What is the work that the prize has been given for? Ashoke says, `The prize was given for my work on strong weak coupling duality symmetry, or in short, S-duality. While many symmetries are easy to
 recognize, S-duality symmetry is hard to recognize since it relates a weakly coupled theory for which a lot is known, to a strongly coupled theory for which little is known. My work in the mid 90's involved devising specific strategy for detecting such symmetries, and I used it to find strong evidence for S-duality in a class of field theories and string theories. Later this strategy was used by others to discover many more such symmetries, and eventually led to the realization that the five different string theories known at that time are all related by such duality symmetries and hence actually describe different limits of the same underlying theory.'

Duality is well known in other contexts. In the context of the Ising model, a model of magnetic phenomena, the duality transformation is used to map phenomena at high temperatures to phenomena at low temperatures. The phenomena seen can be analysed by setting up perturbation expansions in terms of the temperature parameter, high temperature expansions at high temperatures, and low temperature expansions at low temperatures. Often the low temperature expansions are easy to analyse, and obey nice mathematical properties, whereas the high temperature once are not. Then duality can be used to map the insights obtained at low temperatures to understand the phenomena at high temperatures. In the case of gauge theories and string theories, the coupling, or the strength of interaction between particles plays the role of the temperature. Weakly coupled theories like electrodynamics, are well understood, strongly coupled ones like Quantum Chromodynamics are not. Here again, the duality transformation maps one extreme to another, and facilitates analysis. In the context of string theory, the generalization of the S-duality discovered by Ashoke,  reduced the multiplicity of models studied via the insight, that they were different limits of the same theory. 

We would like to finish with another quote from Ashoke. `In my opinion, a lot of Indian parents tend to dissuade their children from taking up physics, so for them an award like this might be an incentive, which is  not necessarily a bad thing. However, if the youth were to start getting into physics only to have access to the prize money, then that would defeat the purpose.'

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

(I would like to add a few personal lines. Ashoke is a close friend of Rahul as well as myself, and is of course, Sumathi's husband. This is a very proud day for all of us. -Neelima.)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Coming slip events cast their electrical shadows

It has long been said that coming events cast their shadows before. Forecasting disasters has long been the mainstay of oracles, soothsayers and astrologers. Unfortunately, all the aforementioned are about to be out of work. Scientists have found clues which can help to predict disasters, at least of the kind that can be classified as slip events. Avalanches, earthquakes and fractures frequently occur as a consequence of surfaces sliding on each other and undergoing a sudden slip, and are considered to be examples of slip events.

N. Nirmal Thyagu, an alumnus of IIT Madras, now at the University of Rutgers, and coworkers Troy Shinbrot and Nam H. Kim, found that  packing granular powders in a rotating cylinder gives rise to avalanche events, a fact which is well known to those who study granular media.
The bursts originate from tiny flaws in the structure of the densely packed powder which propagate towards the surface as the cylinder revolves, eventually resulting in a crack that shears off a portion of the powder from the main body. However, the new discovery came when they stuck a voltage probe inside the powder, (Tylenol, in case anyone is giving themselves a headache identifying the powder), having first cleared the cylinder of static electricity. The probe recorded a voltage spike as considerable as 100 volts, about five seconds before the actual avalanche, or slip event occurs. These five seconds, by which the precursor event (the voltage spike) precedes the actual event (the avalanche), should be compared with the time scale of the avalanche itself, which lasts about 19 seconds. Troy Shinbrot, who led the group, got this idea from earthquake folklore, which has always told stories of lightning and other electrical disturbances preceding earthquakes. The table top experiment set up at Rutgers confirmed this. Similar prediction is possible for events that involve the  impending failure of granular materials, as in cascades in silos, concrete bridge collapses, and  perhaps even earthquakes. 

Journal reference:  Proceedings of the Natural Academy of sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1121596109

Popular articles: Science News, New Scientist, Phys. Org.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Higgs is here

As promised, here is the upshot of today's press conference at CERN. They did stick their necks out after all, although with caveats and caution, as befitting careful experimental physicists. The press release said, “We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage,” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti,“but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication.”

 The spokesperson for the other experiment was equally clear and equally cautious. "The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela.“The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks."

There is no doubt that a new boson has been found, with Higgs like properties. The magic number 5 sigma is found by combining more than one decay mode, which some people cavil at. This may be the Standard model Higgs, or it may have properties beyond the Standard model. However, the bottom line is exactly what the Director General of CERN said. “We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

So there were fireworks on the 4th of July, after all!

 Tailpiece: A Higgs boson walks into a bar, and slaps a large denomination Euro note on the counter. `A big one', it says, ' I've been discovered'.  The bar tender says, `Are you the one they've been looking  for?' `Who cares? ' sniffs the boson. `If I'm not the one, it's even better'.

@ Rahul Siddharthan: Take a look at this link We blogged a lot on the Higgs last year, and a great deal of the story is here, jokes and all.

Slouching towards Eureka

Today might be Eureka day, i.e. CERN might announce the discovery of the Higgs particle.  Or instead, they may announce better bounds and non- Standard Model physics! Fermilab yesterday confirmed that a detailed analysis of their Tevatron data supports strongly (2.9 sigma) all the indications that the Higgs is lurking in the expected range (115-135 GeV) via b-b-bar decays , but no one has the magic 5 sigma result yet.

Meanwhile particle physicists are all excited and waiting for the web-cast from CERN. Hopefully it will be a faster than the December one. In case you want a blow by blow account, here is the link to the Cosmic Variance blog from Discover magazine.

More later today, when we find out  the real score.

5 sigma result at 125 GeV! Is this it? 

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Half the sky

Once again, one of those who hold up half the sky, has reached the skies. Liu Yang becomes the first Chinese woman to go up in space, in a Shenzhou-9 space craft that blasted off the Gobi desert. Thirty three year old Liu is a member of the Chinese air force, and is a crack fighter pilot, and once safely piloted home a jet, whose engine blades got smashed in a bird hit. She is supposed to carry out medical experiments in the current mission, and hopefully the ice-cold composure she demonstrated in the bird hit emergency won't be put to a test.

The elite roll-call of women who have been to space now stands at 57, with three Russians, one Iranian, two Canadians, two Japanese, one Korean, one Frenchwoman, and all the rest being Americans, including two women of Indian origin, Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. The roll call is pretty long, and the best remembered ones include Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman, as well as the first civilian, and also the first Soviet woman in space, in 1963; and Sally Ride (`Ride, Sally Ride'), the first American woman in space,  in 1983. Everything was not a triumphal ride, Judith Resnick and Christa McAuliffe, who was not an astronaut, but a school teacher, were two of the seven who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986, and Kalpana Chawla, more recently in the Columbia disaster in 2003. This post is a tribute to their memory, as well as a toast to Liu Yang, the latest addition to this illustrious list. All the best, Major Liu, and a safe journey home.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi rao.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to get the girls

This post, as the title says, provides useful input on how to get the girls, provided you are an orangutan, of course! A recent study of orangutan strategies for success with lady orangutans, indicate that male orangutans who prolong their years of puberty, sometimes by as much as a decade, develop their physical strength to a point where they can easily displace the dominant males, and thereby acquire all the females. This conclusion is backed by years of field data as well as a simple but solid mathematical model developed by Gauri Pradhan, an alumnus of the University of Pune, who now works at the University of South Florida, and co-workers. However, before all the teenage boys start figuring out how to delay the onset of chest hair, (the orangutans delay the onset of cheek flanges), a few caveats are necessary. The model works for Sumatran orangutans where the societal structure is such that the dominant male can monopolise many females, and does not extend, for example,  to  Bornean orangutans, where the society is structured differently. Secondly, males who have taken recourse to this strategy are shorter lived. Therefore, extensions to Homo Sapiens society should be carried out with care!

For those who wish to pursue this subject further, the original article can be found in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, as well as in news shorts by the New Scientist, and, of course, Monkey News.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The land of kings

Just back from the land of kings, the fabled castles and palaces of Rajasthan, to be more exact, Jodhpur. Modern day Jodhpur is a neat, sweet, and surprisingly clean city. It must be one the very few Indian cities of any size where there are no high rises, the  tallest building seen had no more than two floors. The roads are wide and good, especially after Chennai's pot holes, and there's a surprising number of trees, given that the desert starts just outside.

The two highlights of the city are the Umaid Bhavan palace, a modern day sandstone pile, built in the 1930s for a few crores, as a kind of employment guarantee scheme from the Maharaja to the locals, and the Meherangarh fort. Before you start turning up your noses at the age of the palace, and its consequent modernity, it should be told that it constitutes a beautiful example of decoration in the art deco style. Since a part of the palace is a hotel, and another the private residence of the erstwhile Maharaja, the most spectacular rooms are out of bounds to the public. However, what is on display provides a tantalising teaser to the riches within.  Notable items include matkas made of beautiful Murano glass, perhaps made specially for the Maharaja, the shape is rarely seen in Europe, and some of the Maharaja's collection of vintage cars, with Rolls Royces, Daimlers, Chryslers and Bentleys on display, all in immaculate shape, as is the rest of the domed and turretted building.

Unlike the modern palace, Meherangarh fort, is authentically old, being founded in the 15th century, with all the associated blood and gore of antiquity. Right near the entrance, (with the usual door studded with the nails built to discourage attacking elephants), is the memorial stone dedicated to Raj Singh Meghwal, who volunteered to have himself walled up in the castle rampart as the sacrifice demanded by the local goddess, as well as the little hand prints so often seen in Rajasthan, the marks of the sati, the queens who had immolated themselves at the death of the king. Unlike most monuments in India, the fort, a typical example of Rajasthani medieval architecture, is beautifully conserved, with help of the Germans, and provides an informative audio commentary.

After all the royalty and antiquity, the Indian Institute of Technology, Rajasthan, the newest baby in the IIT family, comes as a refreshing blast from the 21st century. The IITR differentiates itself from the rest of the IIT-s by taking a mulltidisciplinary approach, being organised around interdisciplinary centres, like systems science and biologically inspired research, rather than into the traditional departments and disciplines. To paraphrase a memorable quote from the director, even if you win the rat race, you are only a rat, if you want to be a cat, you have to be different! The approach sounded like an excellent idea, and we wish the newest IIT all luck for its effective implementation.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Wings of fire

Our apologies for lifting the blog title from Abdul Kalam's autobiography, but the title couldn't be more appropriate. With the successful launch of Agni 5, India has joined the elite group of nations with intermediate range missile capability, admittedly far behind the remaining five, viz. the U.S., Russia, France, U.K.  and China.

Is this an achievement to be proud of? Technologically, surely. This is not the kind of technology that is handed over from one nation to another, unless the two nations do it in a clandestine fashion, with the donor nation extracting its pound of flesh in return. No such trades have ever been associated with the Indian missile programme, and India can justifiably be proud of the technological and managerial skills of its defence scientists. Moreover, Agni 5 is dead on schedule, since it was announced in 2007, with an expected launch date in 2011 or 2012. If only India's civilian scientific programmes like the Indus synchrotron, the Indian Neutrino project, the Hanle telescope could match up to the enviable record of the Agni series!

Is this an achievement to be proud of from other points of view? Are we not adding to the proliferation of missiles? Well, given that this was a missile test, it seems to have raised hardly any hackles. There were a few cracks about how Agni's range had been carefully kept below 5000 kms precisely to avoid raising hackles, and also some apprehensions that the real range of the missile is about 8000 kms, which brings it to the level of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but they seem to be unfounded. Is it ethical on the part  of India to make missiles, on this scale? Our record on nonproliferation has been exemplary, and has been recognised as being so, as is indicated by the remarkable absence of international opproborium on this missile test.On the other hand, independence and sovereignity are hard to sustain without military might to back them up, said George Orwell, in one of his essays. This is especially true given our experience with hostile neighbours and their allies. So perhaps this missile test was necessary, despite these other reservations.

Finally, the mission chief of Agni 5 was a woman,  Dr. Tessy Thomas. Congratulations, Dr. Thomas, on scaling a very macho male bastion, a missile mission. We are very proud of you!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A pointer and a tribute

Rahul Siddharthan, a fellow blogger, has requested a pointer to his recent blog post which draws attention to the plight of Dr. Partha Sarathi Ray, a bioscientist at IISER Kolkata, who has been arrested by the Kolkata police last Sunday for peaceful protest and remanded to jail for 14 days. Please see this link for further details, and a petition. See also the Nanopolitan .
This pointer is a singularly appropriate place to homage to the memory of Fang Lizhi(February 12, 1936- April 6, 2012), a Chinese astrophysicist, whose dissident movement was one of the contributors to the Tiananmen square protests of 1989. After the massacre of June 4, Prof. Fang and his family took refuge in the U.S. consulate for nearly 13 months, after which they were allowed to leave for the U.S, ostensibly for medical treatment. Thereafter, he worked as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona, and lived there till his death on April 6, 2012 at the age of 76, remaining active in the human rights movement. One of Prof. Fang's early brushes with authority arose due to an unlikely sounding article entitled “A Solution of the Cosmological Equations in Scalar-Tensor Theory, with Mass and Blackbody Radiation.” This article introduced the Big Bang theory to Chinese physics circles, and was regarded as being heretical as it contradicted Engel's notions of the universe being infinite with respect to space and time.
A more obvious challenge to authority was contained in his speech, made 26 years ago to students at Tongzhi University in Shanghai, where he said, “Human rights are fundamental privileges that people have from birth, such as the right to think and be educated, the right to marry, and so on. But we Chinese consider those rights dangerous. If we are the democratic country we say we are, these rights should be stronger here than elsewhere. But at present they are nothing more than an abstract idea.”
We in India have always fancied we were better off in this respect. We hope we are right, and will be proved right by the response of the Indian people and the state to cases like Dr. Ray's.
This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A new day?

Early projections for the recent by-elections in Myanmar predict a sixty percent fraction of the vote, and about 40 seats of the 45 seats contested to the National League of Democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi. Given that the total number of seats in parliament is 664, of which one quarter are reserved for the military, the victory will be more of a moral and symbolic nature rather than translating into numerical strength for the issues that will face the house. However, the moral strength of the victory which will result in Suu Kyi returning to the house for the first time since 1990, may pave the way to amendments reducing the military strength in the house. Already, key electoral reforms which paved the way to this wekend's ballot went further than the cosmetic measures which were supposedly undertaken to facilitate Myanmar's chair in the ASEAN nations. Once in parliament, Suu Kyi can influence policy and help to tilt the balance of power from the dictats of the military to the wishes of the common people. Of course, the composition of the Myanmar parliament is such that the NLD will hold little legislative power. On the hand, there is no doubt that Myanmar has opened up to an extent which could not have been predicted even a year ago, leading to the hope that sometime in the not too distant future, the country may finally be freed from nearly half a century of military rule.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Two cheers for India!

No, this is not a India shining post. Nor is it an Indians' whining post. It's meant to be something in between, and it's inspired by the events of this Budget week, viz. the Railway budget, the Union budget and the event that stole the thunder from both these.

The Railway budget provided fireworks of an expected/unexpected type. It is expected that Mamata Didi would be her eternal and unchanging self. It is unexpected that one of her party colleagues, Dinesh Trivedi, the Railway minister, would stand up to her, and actually do what needed to be done. The hike in rail fares, coming after nine years, was desperately needed if the Indian Railways are required to continue the task they have been carrying out for two centuries, transport the common man and his family, and his friends and relatives, economically and safely across the country. The Railways are short of staff, rolling stock, track and worst of all, safety equipment, and this shortfall cannot be made up without raising funds, with fare rationalisation being an important component. It is interesting to note that five distinct railway unions, which are large and contentious bodies, have supported this budget. Presumably, as insiders, they are in the best positions to judge whether the fund raising measure was really essential. By the way, we don't recall the Minister curtailing their free travel privileges! So three cheers for Dinesh, the Unions, and a minus one cheer for Didi, making two cheers in all.

The Union budget provides a further case for two cheers. The runup to the budget, viz. the economic survey provides a two cheer case. The economy is not doing that well, but it is not doing that badly either, and has weathered the effects of worldwide economic upheaval with commendable resilience. Pranab Mukherjee has again carried out the difficult combination of doing what needs to be done, viz. reduce the deficit in these times of economic slump, without touching subsidies that will lead to a political fallout. Two cheers for the old fox. However, note that the real pain will come in dribs and drabs after this.

The final two cheers are for the biggest event of budget day, viz. Sachin Tendulkar's hundredth hundred! Two cheers as it finally came against Bangla Desh in Bangla Desh instead of coming as the culmination of those crucial knocks in Australia, and took the amount of time that it did, but it's done now, and all of India , especially Sachin, can get back to enjoying the game instead of holding their breath from the eighties onwards; so two cheers for Sachin, and two cheers for India too.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rahul Basu 04/03/1956-05/03/2011

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!

`Do not stand at my grave', Mary Frye (1932).

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao. ~

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Faster than light, ha!

Here is the latest on the Opera experiment, the one which claimed to have found neutrinos which moved faster than light, and reached Gran Sasso 60 nanoseconds faster than photons would have. `Sources' claim the discrepancy comes from a bad connection between a fibre optics connection with a GPS receiver which was used for the time of flight measurements. There's also a glitch in the oscillator which times the intervals between which the system is synchronised. Although the two glitches are claimed to work in opposite directions in estimating the apparent speed, it is clear that further work and independent measurements are needed to finally close this issue.

Tailpiece: The neutrino and the photon came face to face.
Photon: So, that Bolt was a false start.
Neutrino: It wasn't my fault, it was the cable's!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Cricket, anyone?

The cricket season is on with its ups and down, test matches and ODI-s and inflation and deflation of rankings and reputations. Diehard fans, as well as occasional TV watchers wait for Sachin's 100th century, weep for the whitewash in Australia and wonder how things could go so wrong! Let's see what light a bit of quantitative analysis can shed on these events. The ICC rankings, opaque as they are, attempt to quantify the nonquantifiable, the crack of the bat on the ball. A recent paper attempts to do the same, using the techniques of network science, treating the cricket playing nations as a social network. The teams are ranked, depending on their success in test cricket, and one day cricket, for all the years for which the data is available, (1877 onwards, no less), and so are the team captains. The success of a team (or captain) is determined by the ‘quality’ of wins and not on the number of wins alone.

The method consists of forming a weighted network. All competing teams form the nodes of the network. If team A defeats team B, a link is established pointing from B to a A with a thickness (the weight), proportional to the fraction of wins where B wins against A. The importance of the match is assigned via a quantity called the PageRank which uses the normalised weight of the link in a diffusive term which redistributes the credit of a given node to all its neighbours, with maximum credit being transferred to its most successful nemesis. Teams are then ranked by their PageRank, and captains are as successful as their teams.

The results conform to common intuition, which the ICC rankings don't always do. Needless to say, Australia emerges as the strongest test playing nation, followed by South Africa, despite their twenty one year absence from test cricket (1970-1991), England, West Indies, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Since this is an average from 1877, it is unsurprising that this is more or less the order in which the teams started playing test cricket, except for South Africa. For ODI-s, the order is the same, except for Sri Lanka and New Zealand exchanging places. The most successful test captain is Australia's Steve Waugh, followed by South Africa's Graeme Smith, and Australia's Ricky Ponting. From the subcontinent, only M. S. Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly make it to the top 20 list. For ODI-s, Ricky Ponting leads the table, followed by Graeme Smith and Imran Khan of Pakistan. M.S. Dhoni, Kapil Dev, Saurav Ganguly, Mohammed Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid, Javed Miandad, and Wasim Akram also make it to the top 20 list, perhaps indicating that the subcontinent is better at the shorter version of the game. PageRanks computed over successive decades pick up the domainance of the successful teams of those decades, such as the West Indies dominance of both tests and ODI-s from 1981-1990, India's success against strong teams between 1971-1980 (not reflected in the IIC rankings), and the rise and fall of teams like England, Pakistan and Australia in the pecking order. The author (Satyam Mukherjee at Northwestern University, formerly at IIT Madras), modestly says that this scheme cannot replace the ICC ranking, but suggests a novel approach to refine the existing ranking scheme. We hope this scheme will find its way to the cricket commentaries.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

The original paper can be found here .

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Now where were those keys?

This week sees the news of an important breakthrough in the study of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.While it has been known that the diseases spread due to the spread of a distorted protein, (the tau protein for Alzheimer's ), outward from an area where memories are made and stored, the mechanism of spread was not clear. There were two possible mechanisms proposed for the spread. One, that the spread could take place from neuron to neuron, along neuronal pathways, and the other that there were neighbourhoods that were susceptible to the bad protein, and others that could resist it. It is now established that the spread takes place along neuronal pathways.

The experiments that establish this mechanism are ingenious, and involve genetically engineered mice that can create the human tau protein in a localised area called the entorhinal cortex. Cells in the entorhinal cortex of the mice started dying due to the tau protein. In due course, the disease spread to other areas via the neuronal network. Since other cells could not make the tau protein themselves, the only way the tau could show up in other areas was via transmission from nerve cell to nerve cell. It may then be possible to halt the diseases by preventing cell to cell transmission, e.g. by blocking the tau with an antibody. This might provide the key to the prevention of degenerative nerve diseases (and help find those elusive keys!).

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Presidency University

The high point of last week was a visit to the oldest college in India. Presidency college, Kolkata, started life as Hindu college and was founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1817. In 1855, it was renamed as Presidency college, and has metamorphosed into what might be the youngest university in India, Presidency University, in 2010. Before this, the college was affiliated to the University of Calcutta, since 1857. The college shifted premises several times until it came to rest at its present location on College street in 1874, across the road from Calcutta University. The chemistry department conducted its first batch of practicals here in the next year, starting the venerable tradition of science departments, which train what turn out to be the best science students in the country, year after year, right upto now. Here is a picture of what the "new building" looked like last week.

You can see from the banners and the bunting in the photos that the college is presently conducting student elections, as well as the 41st reunion of the geophysical society. Over its life span, the college has boasted of a veritable galaxy of stellar teachers, J.C. Bose, and P.C. Ray being among the most notable. Here is a picture of the statue of J.C. Bose, sitting in the marble corridor outside the J.C. Bose auditorium, looking a trifle bad tempered. That's probably the black granite!

The college has now to negotiate the tricky path which will take it from its position as one of the most renowned colleges in India, to graduating to a full fledged university. It has a host of distinguished ex-students who will perhaps be only too happy to help along their alma mater in this endeavour, to say nothing of the good wishes of all of us, who have been sufficiently fortunate to have acquired numerous friends, and all our best students, from its alumni.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The new year

When the new year
came out of nowhere
and peeped into rooms
it was so flattered to find
all the tv's drinking its health
praising its innocent appearance
it responded with its warm
dark smile and went round
filling peoples dry hearts with joy

Rg Gregory, `When the new year', Young World, The Hindu, 03/01/12.

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.