Thursday, 31 December 2009

During my days as a student, I used to think that teaching is boring, specially in the university colleges. Each year you teach the same syllabus on and on.
But now, I do not think so. Though the content of my lectures are more or less the same, I teach each batch differently since I tend to teach in a reactive manner. Some batches get boring lectures with no questions asked, no extra inputs, no interesting bits of information,no comments or asides, no digression into the importance of being able to express one's thoughts cogently, nothing. Other batches get the full works . I do that if I feel the students can be improved. Some students are not interested in anything ...such students, I leave alone; I just teach the syllabus as concisely as possible and finish the classes.
One ex- student told me that he had advised his juniors never to miss my classes since it was more fun inside the class than outside(btw, this is not as complimentary as it sounds since he clarified that he liked the remarks I make when some student disturbs me by chatting in class)
But the said juniors are a class which I go to with utmost reluctance, give my lecture and scoot. No comments, no digressions, no extra info...strictly syllabus as prescribed by the University. They sit in class as if they were a taxidermist's handwork. No expressions on their faces. If my lecture went
"the oxidation states of I thought it would rain today but forgot to bring my umbrella and the magnetic properties depend upon.... " no one would even blink an eyelid. I am sure.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

nit picking

I had been to a college function in the village that I was living in last year and next to me sat a retired school teacher. The students presented the usual ppts and the first thing I noticed were the spelling and grammatical errors, but kept quiet. Just then the school-teacher next to me commented "It's a professional hazard; all one sees are the corrections" and she pointed out the same spelling errors. True, it's a professional hazard.
But is it? Perhaps those of us who like to do this kind of nit-picking take to teaching as a career. Like the chicken and egg, which way round is it?
I not only post on my blog, but every time I post, I check my previous post and make spelling and grammar corrections that I do not see when I type in a hurry.
I think those who teach do so because they like to nit-pick.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Good schools

The Swedes have made a success of private schools in their country apparently. The history of schools in Sweden, apparently shows that private schools that work for profit work best.
So, the way of avoiding the trap of good schools only becoming the privilege of the few is to allow for‐profit schools to operate.
This is also the theory my brother always puts forth whenever I discuss college education with him. He quotes the universities of the USA like Harvard. The theory is that market forces will ensure he demise of bad schools and only good schools will emerge as winners.
There is evidence that private schools in villages work better than government schools. In the School Choice National Conference 2009 they show some evidence. It has also been the experience of ASER.
I think the flaw in this is that these schools will cater to the needs of parents who pay the fees. Parents for most part do not understand what is good education. Poor uneducated parents will trust the school and not interfere, but middle class parents feel their child must know more and more stuff. If their child can recite pages of stuff they feel he has been educated well. So the school makes children recite pages of stuff.
I too do not really understand how good education is brought about.... I am able to see the current system is bad, but cannot figure out how a good system should work. Different children learn in different manner.
The American schools with a sort of laissez faire type of education may not be the best idea, since I feel the power of diligence is underrated in such systems. Our method which goes to the other extreme is definitely not good. I keep reading a lot of hand-wringing articles on the bad state of school education in the US as well as in the UK. So where is this "good education" being practised?

Friday, 25 December 2009


It's all very well to carve out Telangana, Rayalseema, maybe also a Konaseema out of AP, but the problem is that we will all get our Shibu Sorens.
Another problem will be the free hand that the new regime will give the Maoists.
Just the preliminary stages of this agitation has seen so much destruction of property both private and government, the toll is going to be very high as the mess gets deeper.
Who will pay for all the damage? The people who support such lawlessness are going to rule the state.
There is nothing wrong in having small states -in fact why not make Ranga Reddy, Medak ...etc all into states while we are about it.... but who will get to govern it? That is what worries us all.
The concept that smaller states are governed better, is without much evidence. Goa is not any spectacular example of good governance...and as far as I know, neither is Pondicherry.
It just depends on who governs the state and is he/she willing to do a good job or not-- nothing to do with the size of the state.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

a new rant

Why can I not read online even a 1897 research paper in J.Phys.Chem for free? Copyrights expire, and this is 1897 for God's sake! It is quite annoying.
The logic of such things evade me. Who will pay for this? The particular paper I want to see is Walker's paper on determining the lowering of the vapour pressure of a solution.
This experiment is explained in detail in any book on Physical Chemistry. I just wanted to see it out of curiosity, but have to pay $30 for 48 hr access. Do they get customers for such papers? Ridiculous! who will pay that much for what is common knowledge that even an undergrad knows.
Actually, I thought it would be good to show such papers to my students when I teach that particular topic...sort of make it come alive, also make it more real for them perhaps; but the idea is not worth $30

If you are not in a research institution, getting to read a paper is quite tough even in this age of internet.
Long ago, the top floor of the IISc library was like a treasure chest ....ancient journals (19th century) which no one ever saw...sort of exciting to read 100 year old scientific papers. Stuff that you take for Millikan's oil drop cant believe that it was cutting edge research at that time. It feels like a glimpse into the clothes in the Salar Jung or the neolithic grinding stone in the Birla museum.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

neutrino project ot of Singara

I had posted earlier about the proposed undergound cavern to be built for the neutrino detector, in Singara amidst the reserve forest and right in the elephant corridor.
The lab for the neutrino project has finally been shifted to another location.
It seems Dr Sukumar has stated that the project would not affect the elephants...I wonder what it's all about.

Friday, 11 December 2009

"Motherhood-the elephant in the laboratory"

Motherhood and the lab----again a complex situation.

A comment "we got equality at work, but did not get equality at home"
It is more complex than the "husband does not help at home" reason.

There is also the Larry Summers type comments that we get-- and some stats of course prove the numbers. But what about the cause? That there are fewer women scientists does not mean that women have less scientific ability or aptitude. They have less opportunity or are restrained by other causes.

When I was pregnant for the first time, my nightmares were, "till last month I was sitting in the lab that surely had mercury vapours" or "Till last month, I was inhaling benzene vapours" Indian labs were not -and maybe still are not -the best places for a pregnant woman.
Then when I had the baby(thankfully normal), I was so sure I could just transfer my postdoc to the place I was moving to. But in those days, childcare was a horror right thinking mother would leave her child in those places.
That is why, it is more complex tahn "my husband did not help me raise my child"
One of us had to sit at home and since usually the husband earned much more and had a much better job it was no choice. Our postdocs of Rs800/- could not have bought Farex for 10 days for the kid. This is the story, of many in those days of no childcare.
One friend of mine had a stream of relatives and ayahs coming and going looking after her daughter and managed. She now has a successful of the pioneers in bioinformatics.
Another friend of mine had to care for two kids and as soon as they became old enough to go to school, her mother-in-law became a victim of dementia and needed constant supervision. She would have made a great organic chemist. A physicist friend got married into a very orthodox family who refused to let her work. I don't know what happened after that. One friend got married to her labmate and had a baby during her PhD and now I see both of their names at a research Instt in Europe. She had in-laws who took care of the child.
In short, it is not the system, but INSPITE of the system that some women have managed to have a good scientific career after childbirth.
The country has lost out on a generation of women who would have been good or great scientists.
A quote from another woman scientist

"My only regret was when I realized I couldn’t really continue meaningful laboratory work working alone and part-time. There’s a definite thrill to discovery – analyzing and interpreting data. I think I’ve made my peace with that now – but hopefully the next gen, should they opt to stay home part-time, won’t have to make that king of decision."

Lok sabha television

Nowadays, one of the few good channels on TV is the Lok Sabha TV. I get only a few channels on my cable TV. Today, I am still at home thanks to our politicians and found this talk on Lok Sabha TV.

" I found it really difficult to teach elegant economic theories when people were in such distress" Prof Md Yunus on Lok sabha TV on how he started the Grameen bank. It has 8 million borrowers and 97% are women. The members of the Grameen bank have savings of half a billion US$. 100,000 beggars have taken loans to become door to door salesmen.
They have a Grameen bank in New York!
"Poverty is a creation of institutions we have built."
The belief was that banks could not lend money to poor since it was unsustainable. But Grameen bank has proved it's only micro credit institutions that have thrived in this financial crisis.
"Poor people are bonsai people...nothing wrong with them, only society curbed their growth."
The main flaw in capitalist theory is a distorted view of human beings. Humans are not unidimensional...they have selfish interests and go for profit maximisation; but human beings can also have other needs and sefless acts also fulfil some such needs.
Now that is a lecture worth listening to. Even a telecast of such lectures would be better than our home-grown (college-grown) FDPs

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Faculty development program

We have a faculty development program every year. The college feels we must be improved.
In these programs, we have talks by people, who tell us "you must have positive thinking", "there is nothing you cannot achieve if you put your mind to it" and so on, with cute stories of how someone with determination achieved something great . Then they give us a power point with those chain mail type stuff which have lovely pictures with such uplifting messages.
I am well into my middle age and have lived through the usual joys and sorrows that people go through -- such talks annoy me tremendously.
Any person who talks to adults should have something more than bright messages.
What I would have found useful is some real life experience that the person may have had in handling teaching challenges..not preachy to achieve the two mutually exclusive objectives of getting students to score in exams as well as learn the subject.
If someone could tell me how I can get students to read something, to discuss some chemistry in class, or even discuss a book they have read, I would be truly grateful.
People who do not realise that life is not some programmed sequential affair, who do not realise that our working hard or thinking positively isn't enough for something to happen, who don't understand that life is complex, have no right to talk down to me as if I was 12 years old.

Monday, 7 December 2009


Parenting is such an unscientific activity that I am not surprised I gave up science as soon as I became a parent. It is however, as frustrating and as rewarding as scientific research.
Based on previous observations, you think this action of yours will have this effect , but it does not. Two kids treated in the same manner react exactly the opposite.
Of course it has a logic of its own, and is quite interesting to reflect upon. I have two kids who are exactly the opposite...I don't know how that happened.
Actually, you never know what happened, but ultimately, things work out. During the teen years, you are convinced that you have failed miserably as a parent, but when they grow up, it seems fine.
Ultimately, I am glad I was a parent and not a scientist, since I could not be both.

On the internet at 80

My father is 85 and has made his own webpage on which he posts about Indian philosophy. My mother has a session browsing through You Tube every afternoon ... she is 75. There is this blog I follow by an 84 year old lady who holidays regularly at Florida and enjoys life.
I then have students who do not use the internet and the rest who do, use it only for orkut/facebook (I asked them).
I told my students to make better use of the net and to look for tutorials on any given topic, check that it is from a known university and read it.
However, one boy told me he uses only Google scholar for search. I would have been impressed, but it was so obviously spurious. He is a person who believes that he should do minimum work and get by using his intelligence to impress people who he considers easily manipulated.
This is an example of a debate that has gone on in my life that was also the point of one of the links in Abi's post.
This boy is intelligent, but takes absolutely no interest in regular academic work. Suddenly when he feels like, he attends a class and gives quite intelligent inputs to the class....not a genius, mind you, but really bright.....but what a waste! I have observed taht students like him are not going anywhere unless they drastically change their attitude to work.
A culture of hard work is essential. I learnt it the hard way.
During my college days, I too believed that the truly brilliant people were slog and achieve was uncool.
Of course, I did not do that well in the university exams where plain solid mugging is necessary, but did well enough to hold on to my scholarship. That only served to reinforce my belief (mugging was not for me) .....So did the fact that almost effortlessly, I cleared two prestigious entrance exams. I also met a few brilliant students who had similar beliefs.
Some of them ended up nowhere due this belief.
Recently, one of my students had this horrifying experience of getting into a top research Instt for an integrated PhD after his BSc only to discover he had failed his BSc final year exams-- totally due to lack of hard work... so, now he is working at a call center. It really pained me. He is, temperamentally, a scientist in the child-like sense of being awe-inspired by the workings of nature.
The bulk of science moves inch by inch on the hard, diligent work of the good-but-not-genius scientists. We get a Planck very, very rarely.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Telengana landscape is full of beautiful rock formations.
My sister-in-law used to drive miles around and sketch these rocks.... my son had done a stint photgraphing these rocks for a "rock census".
They are truly wonderful...old, and eroded to amazing shapes.
There are the lakes...they surprise you drive, in the most unexpected place suddenly...A lake!!
Then there are dolmens. A huge ring of dolmens buried with the ASI excavating just one of them.... no money to excavate the others. The city garbage is dumped all around these dolmens...that was 10 years ago...maybe now the real estate people have dug the dolmens and made a block of flats.....I wouldn't be surprised at all. Development you see !!!

They may get a separate Telengana state. The Congress is in fix. KCR is in a fix. ...he started a fast, but didnt have any idea how to get out of it....thought he had got out of it by drinking orange juice ceremoniously and was villified by the students he had managed to rouse. He was forced to resume it. Still has not managed to wriggle out of it. Must be getting desperate.
Another problem for him is the student body he has aroused.
The strength of students is really awesome. They can be roused easily, but cannot be controlled. Student violence takes on a momentum of its own. It is easily started, but cannot be stopped.
In the years 1971-74, Bangalore university had a student strike every September. ..for no particular reason.. we, the students usually did not even know why we were striking.
The Delhi University had major disruptions in the seventies thanks to people like Arun Jaitley.
Osmania University was another...the murder of George Reddy in the seventies....student politics is really awful.
In the small town I went to school in, we had ONE college and it had college union elections, and in those stupid elections, one of the candidates was murdered and thrown into the lake.
Now again KCR has used the students to further his political ambitions.
Meanwhile, there are students who need to pass out and start earning their livelihood. There are those who aspire to get admission into PG courses and may not be able to.
Politicians are good at making others sacrifice for what they want.

PG students

When they first started an MSc in Biochem in our college, they did not have enough staff to teach all the courses. We, in the Chem. dept were roped in to teach some of the courses taht we a course on biomolecules and one on spectroscopic methods. I got roped in for the latter and diligently prepared for hours polishing my long forgotten spectroscopy, looked up new examples in unfamiliar biomolecules and prepared my lectures.
Once in class, what a let down it was. The students who join for an MSc in this university are much, much worse than the students who join our college for a BSc. They truly did not understand anything I taught. Maybe I am bad, but I can make my undergrads understand.
This paradox still puzzles me....(but perhaps it's like MTechs vs BTechs in IITs)
I am told the current batches are better....they couldn't be worse.
Incidentally, I discovered how awesome biochemistry really is once you are not required to mug up structures and pathways for exams.


The hue and cry about the antics at the CSIR has probably died down now.
I came across the other people in the run for the post of DG.
I wonder why Pushpito Ghosh was not made the DG and also what happened to Visweswariah Prakash.
How much politicking must have gone on I can imagine.
The student community of institutions like the IITs or IISc is amongst the most gossip-mongering.
One gets to "know " people even without actually having any conversations with them. It was true in my time (ancient times as my children tell me) and is probably so now; and old habits die hard... Hence the curiosity.

Friday, 4 December 2009

twenty questions

Many of us have some idea about how we and people very close to us think. But this is a skill not all of us have.
When my kids were small, we would go for long drives beyond the suburbs and during these drives, would play twenty questions. We would also play this on summer nights, during power cuts, lying on the terrace.
The game involves one player thinking of a famous person, and the other/others asking him questions which he must answer truthfully with either a yes a no. The maximum number of questions allowed is twenty.
The thing is, I knew exactly who my husband and kids are likely to have chosen and could often guess within five or six questions. But my husband could not do the same. The children were somewhere in-between.
Knowing someone is a skill that has to be built over the years I think. It comes with the day to day tending that mothers do. That's why fathers of the previous generations who believed childcare is the mothers' domain, do not know their children, and in their old age, find their own children are strangers.
The fathers who thought they were smart in outsourcing childcare to their wives, have really missed a huge part of life.