Tuesday, 7 December 2010

alien life

Why is it so surprising that some life form should have As substituted for P?
It has always surprised me that even scientists imagine alien life to have the same biochemistry as us... so that when they look for alien life, they look for liquid water, oxygen, nitrogen.
But why should it be so?
Alien life may be something we cannot imagine, cannot understand perhaps.
Do we really understand that our undersatnding is highly limited....just like we cannot see most frequencies of the em spectrum, or hear most frequencies, we cannot understand many things... even the most brilliant human has limited capacity to understand and imagine.
Bacteria that live in the hydrothermal vents, and now an arsenic-using life form, there may be many more such surprises even on earth and on other planets.........we may not be able to imagine what form life will take on.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

medical science

Till recently, most middle-age women were under pressure to take 500 mg calcium per day.
All this was "scientifically proved" requirements for women in their middle age.
Now it has been "scientifically proved" that the mega dose of calcium is unnecessary and maybe harmful.
Till about 7 or 8 years back, women were strongly advised to start hormone replacement therapy at the smallest sign of peri-menopausal problems. They were told that it was "scientifically" proved that HRT would eliminate all the unpleasant problems of menopause. It has now been established , again "scientifically", that HRT is really harmful.
In the 1960s, it was considered by most doctors that babies must be fed vitamin fortified formula in preference to their mother's milk. Now it is widely accepted that babies must not be fed formula unless absolutely necessary.
How scientific are clinical studies? Animals and humans are not identical. So all data must be statistical. So must all medical studies be taken with a pinch of salt ? Also how will I know that I am not that outlier in the graph.

Monday, 29 November 2010


A few days back, I had posted that I am happy our scams are coming out and not being swept under the carpet as has been the case till now.
Now with a vengeance there's a scam-a-day.
Are they being exposed selectively? Are scams being aired selectively by some group that decides which scam can be leaked to the public and which must be kept under wraps?
This is what Ratan Tata seems to suggest. Is he saying that because he has some knowledge of the background, or is he just peeved?
If this theory is true, it's really scary.

Monday, 22 November 2010

confused again

What is the difference between "integrity" and " impeccable integrity"?
I am confused again.
For any appointment to any senior post, "integrity is a given, but if impeccable integrity is an eligibility condition, then most judicial and constitutional appointments will be under question"quote from Vahanavati.
This was on NDTV in the context of the appointment of the new CVC.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

to post doc or not to post doc

IITM has a short term post-doc program for women who have a PhD but could not continue in a research career. It's a nice initiative.
Personally, though maybe it's too late, for I feel my experimental skills are terribly rusty....but again, maybe they are good still......... I wouldn't know till I try it.

Thursday, 18 November 2010


Interesting how people can design materials. A new nanopillar sounds incredible.
However, if we are going to use solar energy on a large scale, should we not stick with silicon and that too amorphous?
Otherwise the problems created by large scale disposal of Ge, Cd, Sb, Te etc is going to be the next problem we create.
Amorphous silicon uses less energy to manufacture.
I think people should tweak the a-Si and come up with better efficiencies for large scale uses, grid integration etc and keep the other elements for specialist uses.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


The height of cheek-
Raja stating that he is resigning in order to uphold parliamentary democracy.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


A report by Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera in today's Hindu magazine says that Chattisgarh has improved its PDS enormously.
As they are quick to point out, it is not due to the goodness of the chief minister's heart.
It is good calculation. (That is more sustainable...goodness of heart is not a good model)
When the politicians realise that good governance is good for their chances of staying in power, there is hope.
Because some politicians have realised (or maybe the electorate has made them realise) that it makes good electoral sense to govern well, there is hope for India; there is hope others will emulate this model in order to stay in power.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Obama visit

The whole media-world seemed to be excited by Obama's visit. While I liked his speeches both at St Xavier's and at the Parliament for the free flowing oratorical excellence, it was just a talk... albeit a good one.
Just like he pointed out the human rights violations in India, one could tell him that until there is a just solution in Palestine, until Iraq and Afghanistan are normalised, there will be terror.
He said it was our duty to speak up against such violations anywhere in the world. So maybe we should start with Iraq.
However, we do need to set our human rights track record on the right path, not for Obama, but for our own future -- if we don't want to live perpetually inside gated communities afraid of bombs in trains and shopping malls.

Friday, 5 November 2010

rare earths

“Over the past couple of years, Korab has variously portrayed itself as a gold company, phosphate, uranium, base metals and cobalt (company), more recently as a rare earths company! Whew, how does this company keep up with itself? … Gee, it must be hard to make discoveries like this without doing a bit of drilling or even soil sampling”.


artificial light

It took me a long time to get used to the bluish white light of the CFLs that are currently used everywhere. Maybe it is because most of my life, electric light meant the tungsten filament kind with its yellow light. I wonder if it is true for younger people who are used to the bluish white light form their childhood. If not, then is it some atavistic thing -- from the days when wood fire was used for light and heat?


Murmurings started during dussera and now there is more for deepavali. There are claims that Narakasuran and Mahishasuran were adivasi kings killed in battle and then demonised.
These theories are quite likely to be true though it is probably not possible to prove or disprove such theories.
Whether they are or not, much of our mythology is about warfare, killings etc. Or, to be more accurate, the mythological stories we hear are about war and killing.....many of the finer nuances are obscure and unheard of.
Many temples were allegedly built on adivasi temples or sacred groves.
I do not know how many of these theories are true. Probably, some are true and some are not; but these theories act as a nucleus for strife.
It is time that religion became a personal affair and noisy celebrations phased out.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"there is toilet paper in khoya and animal fat in ghee" high pitched screeching on the TV . This is a news report on the raids that the Delhi govt has conducted on sweet shops in the run up to Deepavali.
But if ghee shouldn't have animal fat, what should it have? I am confused.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Maybe China's new rare earth policy is good news for Indian Rare Earths Ltd. IREL is exporting about Rs1000 million worth of rare earth compounds already. But will that mean overexploitation of the beaches?

Saturday, 30 October 2010

India shining soon?

I am beginning to believe that 2009,10 an 11 are going to be some kind of turning point for our country... turning for the better.
Couple of years back, I had started to feel depressed about the state of the country-the totally unshining India. The corruption, the poverty, the serious neglect of environmental disasters, the vote banks, the violence. The RTI act left me cold. I thought -- someone files an RTI application for some minor matter, files will get lost, or be eaten by rats. Someone files an RTI for something major, next week, you may see his face in the obit...sad demise of MrX , run over by a speeding lorry, driver missing.
Yes, it is still bad, there have been one odd case of RTI filers dying, but not as I expected it to happen. The violence is still there, but some efforts are being made to get to the bottom of the problem. The Amit Shah case, Niyamgiri hills case, the BT brinjal case, the new Adarsh coop case..there is a process set in motion for setting the wrong right at least in some cases. Everything is not being swept under the carpet in every case as used to happen earlier.
Things are happening. At least some people in positions of power are trying to do something that they genuinely think is good for the country... whether one agrees or not, one feels they are for most part well intentioned. That is a great step in the right direction.
I see hope.
Maybe we will see India shining in a few years' time.

Friday, 29 October 2010

fire in the lab

There was a fire in the chem lab of Presidency college in Kolkatta.
There is a need for all universities and colleges to have some standardised lab infrastructure.
There should not be anything left to the college management's discretion.
How chemicals are stored, how the lab is designed, fire safety drills, etc need to be standardised. A guideline prepared and enforced as far as possible. There should be advice freely available for waste management, storage methods, safety data etc.
Faculty, lab staff and students must be made aware of MSDS and other such data.
The University should change its syllabus. The experiments prescribed for undergrads should involve as few hazardous chemicals as possible.
For example, to teach Nernst Distribution law, is it necessary to extract benzoic acid with benzene? Every student has to use large amounts of benzene. Why not teach the concept with some other solvent?

Monday, 25 October 2010

the miseries of a doctoral student

How a prof treats his doctoral students is I think the key to his/her character.
There was this prof who had a series (6 I think) of students working on a particular substance from different sources. When my friend joined him she was given the same problem. After 7 years of frustrating work, the prof turns around and says "how can you get a PhD for working on a problem that is similar to what 6 others have done?" or words to that effect. Did he realise this only after 7 years of work? She was devastated, started showing signs of mental imbalance, until luckily, she got a job. She turned out OK and he later relented and allowed her to submit her thesis.
While I agree that doing almost the same work as your predecessor does not make a good thesis, it would have been impossible for her to have told him to give her another problem at the outset...he would have thrown a fit!
My PhD supervisor on the other hand, was a true gentleman.
There have been eminent scientists who have made lives miserable for their doctoral students, not because they expected good sound work, but due to sheer cussedness and ego hassles.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Academy of sciences for the developing world(TWAS)

Another example of "I usually find that conferences on finding solutions to world hunger are held in five star hotels."...
Well, this is not a conference on hunger, but something like it---and Novotel is not 5 star, it's 7 star I believe and is attached to the HICC. Admission is by invitation only.
The bada sahibs will decide how to improve our lives.

Monday, 18 October 2010

growing as a teacher

A blogpost I read sometime back has shown me how some people grow as teachers. Thirty years ago, a nondescript young teacher, perhaps made more diffident by an unusually unpleasant senior prof. is now acclaimed as one of the great teachers by his students--a growth that is not measured by the rise in status or increase in paycheck, but by the fact that he has made strong impact on a couple of his students (and surely many others).
A pleasure to know this.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

In praise of chalk and talk

The traditional teaching method of lecturing has been considerably maligned. There is a big move towards technology -based teaching---online courses, video courses, etc.
I do see the value of these technology-driven courses-- I am a great fan of video lectures (or I would be if my youtube downloader would work).
Can I ever hope to attend a course on thermodynamics at MIT? So the youtube version is a godsend for me.
I also think online courses are great.
But the inter-personal dynamics in a classroom is fascinating. You modify your lecture on the spot seeing the student response. You can pick out the few who are interested and focus on their needs. Within the frame work of the course content, you can tailor your lecture to suit the class, or suit the mood of the day. The 2 pm lecture is not the same as the 10 am lecture even if it is the same class, same topic. The 2 pm lecture has work to be done... "balance the equation" -- "let me see your notebooks" -- keeps them awake. The 10 am lecture is different.
Technology-based courses are great for furthering your education, for the self-motivated learners, for the mature learners. The good old face to face chalk and talk is for the immature learners (our college students). It may be enhanced and embellished with powerpoints and video clips, but the basis has to be lecture and blackboard.

tenure in US universities

I am quite clueless about the subject in the title of this post. But from the agonising I read in various blogs, and the experience of some relatives, I conclude that getting tenure at a good university in the US is a difficult thing.
But, I did not know it was this tough-
" it was not until 1987 that he began to teach at Yale, where he earned tenure in 1999." 12 years to get tenure for guess who--------
Benoit B Mandelbrot.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

biofuels yet again

According to Robert Lawrence, a policy should have one defined goal and not try to be a "one stone two mangoes" kind of policy.
More on biofuels-
"In the 1930s, biofuel was touted as a strategy for dealing with agricultural surpluses and low commodity prices.When oil prices were high in the late 1970s, ethanol was seen as a gasoline extender. During the 1990s, ethanol was seen as an aide to combating urban smog in large U.S. cities. As concerns about greenhouse gases intensified in the 2000's, Europe adopted biofuels as a way to reduce emissions. While the United States was concerned about emissions as well, a biofuels mandate was also adopted for national security reasons, namely, concerns about oil imports, and to support Midwestern corn farmers."
He feels that if you look closely,one by one at these goals, you will see that
the policy does not meet any of them really well.
In addition, I think, it will lead to further depletion of water (in the case of corn) and erosion of food security.
Very often, our solutions lead to bigger problems.

Friday, 15 October 2010

cheaper science

My brother's 4 year old son had been visiting me(of course with my brother and his wife). I just cleared the house of plastic cups full of stinking water and rotting leaves which were his "experiments"...also one demo of how fold mountains got folded which involved a paper strip covered with garden soil.
I came across a blogpost on the need for cheaper science.
True--if money was what it's all about, why should bright young men/women then join academia? There is better money in the corporate world.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

jatropha again

Should we encourage the cultivation of jatropha for biodiesel? There is a plan to popularise jatropha cultivation.
Who will grow food for the starving millions?
The need is to encourage food production in every inch of land and give incentive to farmers who do so-- not make it more tough for them to grow food.
There is also need to shift to more drought resistant cereals --we should all try to eat more millets rather than rice/wheat. (this is my son's soap box theme which I have usurped)
We should power our automobiles by solarPV or hydrogen--- at least move towards that goal rather than use land for cultivation of biodiese-lproducing plants.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

multiligual education

An excellent idea
I have no idea how well it has been/ is being implemented.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A few days back I had written about teaching science through entertainment. Here is one more person who feels that way.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Unusual new engineering institutes

I don't know how I have not heard of these institutions before. There are three new institutions that will teach engineering subjects along with sciences, mathematics, social sciences and humanities to rural children who do well in their 10th class examinations. They will study for six years and become engineers. There is no regular lecture process..instruction is through video lectures along with discussions with mentors (and I suppose classmates). It sounds really good.
They were started in 2008 and are subsidised by the government of AP.
Very interesting. Maybe I can visit one of them.
I wish they had better website.

Indian Academy of Sciences Survey "Women in Science"

I had posted earlier about women scientists (might-have-been) I know.
The survey for the "women in science" program has been analysed and the researchers have put it up on the ias website
I see a huge improvement in the childcare facilities offered in campuses. (We had NONE so anything is a huge improvement). More importantly, I see a huge difference in the attitudes of younger women like my daughter. (I just got off the phone after a long one-sided conversation on the relative merits of various grad schools)
and may I say, change in parents too---- I did not lay down any law regarding what she should do or where she should go or that she should get married.

I hope there is also a change in the rigidity at workplaces giving parents more flexibility in their schedules and enabling both parents to participate in chilcare.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

publish or correct?

"Key features of our Journals

Acceptance or rejection of submitted manuscript will be informed within 10 days limit to corresponding author.

No page charges, no an article processing charges, no mandatory subscription to authors and coauthors.

Totally free publication.

Abstracting in reputed abstraction services."

I found this in my inbox. Should I be flattered that someone thinks I have research work to publish or should I be insulted that I am expected to publish in a journal that obviously lacks editorial staff?
I am itching to underline and circle with my red pen.

Friday, 24 September 2010


I watched Ken Robinson on TED. I totally agree that our schools knock curiosity and creativity out of children and have said so elsewhere.
But when it comes to people at large, the standard education is what gets us jobs, that's how we earn our three meals (or at least two). Maybe, we the middle class people can afford to let our child dance if he/she likes to, and give up school, maybe we can find some means of getting a livelihood (though I doubt it), but for the majority, a job means two meals and no job means hunger. Can they afford to learn dancing in the hope that one day, ONE day, they will make it big? They need a job NOW. All of them won't be Gillian Lynne .
So, is really good education a luxury?
Is creativity a luxury?
Will the future have schools that nurture creativity, but which will be catering to some elite people who need not worry about the next meal?
Will we then have a new class system?
What we can hope for is an education system that trains people for livelihood without killing their creativity. But do I have a clue about how that goal is achieved?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Anyone believe that Kalmadi and co don't get to keep their millions?
Every once in a while one of the many corruption cases come to light, there is a big hooha , people are accused, they are suitably shamed---- but then, they get to keep their stash !
So it is worthwhile to them to face the music, the music being of the soft and gentle kind, cool off in Tihar for a short while, and get back to enjoy the millions in the Cayman islands.
We can only hope the global warming will drown them in their island palaces.

Monday, 20 September 2010


When cable TV first came to India, we were enamoured by it. The great visuals, entertaining content..
Now, I get about a 100 channels, but often I can't find anything I want to watch, so I sometimes turn to Lok Sabha TV and DD. One often gets to hear talks by people who have something to say and more importantly, the DD/LS anchors allow them to say it, unlike Karan Thapar/ Barkha Dutt. This morning, there was an interview with Prof YashPal. He talked about how the satellite program started. They were able to get going without a formal project report and he says that's probably why they were able to do so much.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

organic chem

It is so reassuring to read this post. Meerwin-Pondorf- Verley and Claisen-Schmidt are just nice names to me now. I also like McLafferty of mass spec fame---that's why I have been dodging any proposal to teach Organic Chem.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

DrDog, PhD

A recent blog post reminded me of stray dogs in my college.
We have a lot of trouble getting students to attend classes regularly.
However, a few years back, there was a stray dog that sat through all my lectures for a whole academic year....I year, II year and III year BSc Chemistry lectures... he sat through them all!.
His attendance record was so good, I quoted him as an example to my errant students.
After 1 year, he stopped attending.
A few weeks into the next year, I had to visit the Biochemistry department. And lo behold, he was in the MSc biochem lab!
He has probably finished his PhD by now.... Dr Dog, Biochemist!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

infinite russian dolls

I lived in Delhi between the ages of 4-8 or so. A neighbour had a tin of coffee--Polson's if I remember right. It had a picture of a woman and a man in evening dress and there was a tin of the same coffee next to them which had the picture of ..... This used to fascinate me..how many times will that tin inside a tin be repeated?---will it go on forever? Even now, after almost half a century, I feel intrigued by that...
I was reminded of my childhood fascination by this article on complexity.

Monday, 6 September 2010


The Turkish government had banned Kurdish language in Turkey. Only due to pressure from EU, they have lifted the ban. So perhaps a generation of Kurds have grown up without knowledge of their language. Gaelic and Welsh seem to be museum pieces. Pali and Prakrit are lost. The language of the Indus valley is lost, thousands of dialects are already lost. Soon a time will come when the whole world speaks one of three or four languages.
The world may have lost more languages in the past millenium than is currently spoken today.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


Many people consider that educating children in a language alien to them culturally, is a form of genocide, or as a serious human rights violation.
If you educate Gond children only in Gondi or Toda children only in Toda language, you are totally closing their options to higher education.
As I have mentioned earlier, one of the girls in the village school I was teaching in, was very good at logical thinking, data correlation, etc-- any problem I gave , she would stare at it for 5 minutes and give the right answer while none of the others could even figure out how to start. This girl is educated in Tamil medium- she wants to study Mathematics. Most good colleges offer BSc Math in English medium. So I advised her to listen to English news on TV and familiarise herself with the language. Tamil is a mainstream language, and has books available for all subjects even for tertiary education. Still, even that puts her at a slight disadvantage. Imagine the fate of a child who may be brilliant, but had been educated in a tribal language. What chance does he or she have in higher education? Where will he/she go for an MA or MSc? or even BA /BSc?

Another aspect is this-- I, for example, have lived mainly in North India, but my mother tongue is Tamil. In a small town in UP, if I insist on my fundamental right to be educated in Tamil medium, is it a reasonable demand? It is feasible in Delhi, but in a small town in UP or Bihar is it possible to have Tamil, Telugu, Assamese, Malayalam , Punjabi ....schools catering to three students each? So if I exercise my fundamental right to live anywhere in India, what about my right to education in my mother tongue?

However, the sad fact is that languages are dying out. When my son was born, I used to speak to him only in Tamil, and he knew only Tamil though we lived in some other state. This was till he started school. Then suddenly, I don't recall when, he started speaking English. Before I realised, he was speaking only English. Now my children are not comfortable speaking in Tamil.
My parents were educated in Tamil, I was educated in English and I speak Tamil as the norm. I do not read or write Tamil very well and I cannot understand classical Tamil. My children do not even speak the language very well. Their children may not even recognise Tamil. Yes languages are dying out.
But isn't that what happens to all cultures throughout time. If it did not, we would still be grunting in cave man language--- the culture of the stone age men died and gave rise to a different culture, which in turn died ... and so on.
The English we speak today is very different from the English of medieval times. The Tamil spoken in the streets of Chennai is different from the Tamil we speak at home, and the younger people speak the street Tamil even in households in Chennai or Tiruchi. The various forms of Hindi like Avadhi and Braj were quite different from the Hindi spoken today in urban areas. Deccani is dying out...I can see that from 20 years ago.... I used to hear a lot of Deccani in the streets of Hyderabad, now I rarely do.
Languages do die.
Should we then educate tribal children only in tribal languages and make it difficult for them to integrate into the more lucrative streams of life? Or should we use them to preserve their culture and language irrespective of the cost to them?
For, let us face it, tribal lifestyle while admirable and sustainable in the larger scheme, is not fetching the tribals a good enough livelihood.

Saturday, 4 September 2010


I was just reading an article about Jenu Kurubas. It has a detailed description of social practices of the tribes.
A few years ago, I attended a wedding. The bride was the daughter of a friend. This friend has a lot of foreign friends...Canadian, American and British who attended the wedding. I knew a couple of these ladies and we all sat together watching the ceremonies. The wedding rituals they chose to have was a mix of Andhra Brahmin, Tamil Iyengar, Sikh and maybe some other rituals since the family had people from all these communities. So I just watched the rituals, not really paying much attention. My neighbours however, were very interested and started asking me what each ritual meant and what came next. I know a bit about wedding rituals of my own community, but this was one hybrid wedding and I had no clue what each ritual meant. I just mumbled some not very enlightening commentary. The ladies finally came to a conclusion... all the rituals were for "Good Karma" I said "yes" with great relief ---- whatever "Good karma" meant to them.
My point of this long narrative is this... perhaps we, who are outsiders to the Jenu Kuruba, also write long descriptions of their social mores without really understanding any of it......maybe what we read as anthropology is not what it actually is.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I find Facebook quite difficult to accept. That what you do everyday gets into the public domain is very difficult to handle. The younger people seem fine with it. Either from your friends' comments, or from what you write, your whole life seems to have become public. I have so far been just dipping my toes in the water as far as facebook is concerned-- on the one hand, it is a nice way of keeping in touch, but on the other, it lays bare your life to the public. I really don't know how good it is.
What I envy is the fact that my children are able to keep in touch with friends from way back.....one of my daughter's classmates who left her school when they were 12 years old, got in touch once they all got on to facebook- so much so, they know the minor details of each others lives.
I, on the other hand, have lost touch with old friends, because in our times, one wrote letters-- and that happened once or twice a month, then once a year and finally dwindled down to never. Now, after 3 decades, even if I find my old friends on Linkedin or facebook, there is no commonality.
Facebook has given a new dimension to friendship which is alien to most people of my age group. Even those of my age group who are on facebook, do not use it in the same manner.... they don't inform the world that they strained their muscles trying to jog with grandson or some such information..... we are not used to informing the world about the trivia in our lives-- we feel "who would care to know this ?"
But ........ Does anyone really need to know how I feel about facebook?

Monday, 30 August 2010

indus valley

Perhaps this is how the Indus valley civilisation got wiped out. In ancient times, without modern technology, a flood of this kind would have been the end of the world.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

visiting places

I was looking at the pictures posted on a travel blog and was wishing I could go to those places. Having lived in many places , I don't like just visiting places. I wouldn't like to go as a tourist to places, except maybe to see monuments...
What I like is living in different places and becoming a part of life there.... Nilgiris...the 6 o'clock train on winter evenings, going back home after my visit to the beautiful library . Amazing experience that no tourist can have. Being part of the life around you.... talking to neighbours who were vegetable farmers--living in the hills of UP, taking long walks on holidays....... living in the hills of north Bengal, taking my small son for a picnic lunch on the hillock behind my house...amazing how much he used to walk.
The hills of India are beautiful.


I was talking today to my son, about teaching college students in the US . He was told that he should be a little entertaining.
I also saw that Prof Tandon is in the news (ICM)
Some people believe that your lecture (on a scientific subject) must be entertaining --why entertaining?
Some years ago, I used to volunteer for this organisation that has a summer school in science for 9th class kids, and I heard Prof Tandon give a talk to 14 year olds on prime numbers. He was really interesting.. he held the kids (and me) spell-bound.
I think there is a great difference between entertaining and interesting.
If my students want to be entertained, they should switch on their TV, but if they want my lectures to be interesting, that's a reasonable demand. ( though some parts of my syllabus are impossible)
However, for a lecture to be interesting, one has to have some interest to begin with. Given that as a starting point, it is the duty of the teacher to make it interesting. But entertaining? No!

Though Prof Tandon's talk was like a story-telling session, I would not call it entertaining. I would call it interesting, very interesting.

I find these videos where they teach Chemistry with "you be sodium and let Jimmy here be chlorine" very silly.....you are not three years old when you are taught ionic bond - so why this role play?
I don't believe the children (12 to 14 year olds) learn ionic bond any better by this than by more conventional methods. In fact, there is a serious problem in this particular example.
Once I asked my class " If an ionic bond is formed by giving of electron directly by one atom of sodium to one atom of chlorine thus forming sodium chloride, what about the sodium chloride formed when I neutralise sodium hydroxide with hydrochloric acid and then crystallise the product? is that an ionic bond?"
The students were confused by this---- and they are in college.
I don't blame the students.
You should see the diagram the 9th class AP state school textbook has for a polarised atom...enough to confuse any child.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

"So, do blogs like this give us a more accurate impression of the tenure-track life or do they amplify the negative, leading some people to conclude that pre-tenure suffering is de rigueur?"
This question can be asked about any aspect of life.
Whether it is tenure-track in a US university or teaching in a college or being a student in India, a working mother or a retired person, many people use their blogs to vent their daily disappointments, post their rants and criticisms. Some blogs are downright obnoxious.
Of course there are exceptions --- and ---
How many of us blog about "I am happy today!" ?
"I finished all my corrections and returned all my students' records Yay!"-- (I just did that today)
So blogs are disproportionately pessimistic.
If one were to obtain ones world-view from blogs, one would be depressed totally.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

degrees to foreign nationals.

Do we never award degrees to non-Indians? We have so many foreign students in all our universities. Even NDA and IMA, our defence academies regularly train and award degrees to foreign nationals.
What is the funda about not giving a degree to Viswanathan Anand even if he was a foreigner who forgot the fact and played for India.
The problem with activists who campaign for preserving forests/tigers, for those against dams etc, is they focus on the tiger or the forest. The majority of the electorate is either rural, but non forest-dwelling or urban. In either case, preserving the tiger or the forests is of no interest to anyone.
"Hum to tiger zoo me dekh sakte hain"
What they should concentrate instead is to educate people about water resources being depleted if forests are destroyed, of sure destruction of ecosystems if the tiger is decimated, of floods in their cities and villages, of the influx of "undesirable" squatters into their cities if the tribal lands are destroyed...
THEN, the electorate is interested and the politicians inturn will do something. Until the focus is the forests/tigers per se, nothing will happen.

quote from Bittu Sahgal

"I am in Kolkata driving through wetlands that are being destroyed. No one told administrators about climate change & water stress?" on NDTV website
Yes really, has no one heard of the role of forests in maintaining aquifers either?


A mining company official smugly states on NDTV that they have given compensation of 50,000/- for some and 100,000/- for others displaced due to their mining operations. They are also willing to train and employ the displaced tribals if found suitable.
I am sure all the displaced tribals are now trained and writing software for material management in the company and are paid 3 lakhs per month. Go to the company office and you will see happy Gondis tapping away at their laptops.
Nice! Tomorrow someone may take away my house and say they will settle me in the Dandakaranya forests, employ me as a honey gatherer instead. They will train me to go into the forest and gather honey and if I was proficient in walking for 20 miles a day in the jungle, and braving angry bees and Naxalites, I can be employed in their honey gathering enterprise. If found untrainable, they will give me 50,000/- instead! Good bargain!!

Sunday, 22 August 2010


Can you believe it? There is a THESIS on slangs used in IITM.

5 star hotels

I just read an old blogpost about how the Leela and other 5 star hotels do not have provision for / do not allow patrons to come in on a bicycle.
Actually, coming in a car would perhaps be the least environment-unfriendly part of staying/eating at a 5 star hotel. So why crib about not being allowed to come on a bicycle?
If you are truly environment conscious should you be patronising the energy-water guzzling establishments in the first place?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Today, we had a freshers welcome show in our college... that means, in my old age, I have to listen to mediocre or even really bad music amplified through high wattage speakers for 4 hours at a stretch. So I am exhausted.
A few years back, my brother was visiting me. I had to go to my college, so had taken him and my little neice(about 5 yrs old ) along with me. This was because we were having a sort of student activities day. I left my neice in front of the stage to watch a play telling her that it was a funny play(it was supposed to be). When I got back, she was watching it seriously and asked me"When will the funny part come?"
A colleague of mine teaching English used to put up plays in the college. With her sergeant-major tactics, she put up some really high class plays with the same kind of students. On their own, the students cannot even think of putting up a good skit, let alone a play -- and they are all around 20 years of age.
There really is something wrong with how we educate them.

Friday, 20 August 2010


During my school days, my English teacher tried to convince me to take up Eng Lit in college instead of Chem as I had planned to. She liked the critical work that I did for our poetry and drama classes.
Recently, I was thinking that since anyway I was not doing any research in Chem as I had hoped to, I might have been better off with a BA & MA in English. People teach soft skills or spoken English and make a good living..... a couple of hours a day, and they are paid some exorbitant amount. We slog 39/40 hours a week and inhale noxious fumes and get paid a sad amount.
But my point is this..... the way we are trained is different from the way a person educated in the liberal arts is trained--- you may say "obviously", but it is not just that I am trained in scientific method and they are not...
There is a totally different way of looking at things that I find I lack. A way of reading between the lines ...
I wish I had been trained in liberal arts too.... I was good at it in school, but have not developed that skill since .
I am glad that the IISc is starting an undergrad course with some social sc and lib arts components. The IITs of course always had this, but it was a mere tokenism for most students.... a course to cram at the last moment and pass... hopefully, it may not be so at the IISc.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

There is a feeling amongst many people that one is casteist if one marries within one's caste.
They ask "will you look for a son-in-law from ---caste?" or"look at the matrimonials" as a clincher in proving you are casteist.
I find that argument spurious. If I were to look for a son-in-law at all, I would definitely look for one in the families and social set up that I am familiar with. That way, I can find some sister-in-law's cousin whose husband is the third cousin of the son-in-law-to-be and then make enquiries about what the said person is like. But if my daughter were to find a person she likes and I, after getting to know him, find that he is a nice person who will make her happy, then I would not even ask about his caste/whatever.
Getting married, or shall I say the post of son-in-law is not an equal opportunity thing. Why will I not look for compatibility in as many ways as I can?

Friday, 13 August 2010

Validation again

To revisit the validation theme, for an administrator, say a prime minister, it is dangerous to listen only to yes men....we all know that. That is a sure way to lose the next election.
However, for ordinary mortals, how dangerous is it?
It is comfortable to stay in your own sphere, and maybe essential too, "because our opinions determine what we aspire for, & how we go about trying to achieve it. So, if one has to concede that what one had aspired for all these years was wrong, then next imminent conclusion would be that there was something wrong with about our life."-- to quote a comment by Ketan on my previous post,
But does being unaware of contra opinions make us lose touch with reality? Maybe it does in some cases..... like people who get brainwashed...religious cults....

Thursday, 12 August 2010

TV and comp

I was visiting my brother who has a small kid. My sister-in-law is happy that their TV is not functioning.
It is a dilemma when children are small...it's all very well to say "OK you can watch one hour of TV per day " in a stern voice. It works for about two days. Then it's back to sitting in front of the box like a zombie. That's what happened when we first got cable TV in my house many years ago. My children promised not to watch more than 1 hour per day. .....well guess what happened!
However, they are doing fine with both kids turning out to be quite well-read, and the more avid TV watching daughter doing rather brilliantly in her academics and the son too doing very well for himself. In case parents of TV addicted kids read this blog, this is one piece of data to tell you "don't worry too much"
The same story when we got an internet connection.
I thought "OK with the internet, the kids can read up for projects" --- etc, but they spent much of their online time playing games.
Now, I don't know what they do, but I suspect most of the time is spent on Facebook/Twitter/gtalk/ whatever. So to keep up with the rather tough acad. schedule, it's nightouts most nights.
Would you believe it--I have researched sleep deprivation and sent research paper links to them to persuade them to sleep at regular hours!
The problem with having a PhD mom is that she doesn't just give advice, she supports it with references!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Nowadays, one keeps reading/hearing about children committing suicide for the most trivial reasons. Parents refuse to give pocket money, or buy a new cell phone, or reprimand them for not studying, they kill themselves.
Another aspect--a young woman does not reciprocate a young man's advances, he throws acid on her or kills her.
Why is there such a sense of entitlement in the minds of young people? Why do they feel that whatever they desire, must be instantaneously provided to them? Why can they not tolerate any setbacks in the fulfillment of their desires? Is there something wrong in the way they are brought up, or is it something to do with the way society functions now?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


There is much talk of foreign universities setting up shop in India. I wonder how the students will take to it. One problem may be the fees. But a more important problem would be the way they learn.
We have some MSc courses in our college though thankfully none in Chemistry. They have an annual lecture series in which they have some talks by profs/scientists. They then have poster presentations.
Now these posters by MSc students are just an extension of what they did for the school science fair in class VII. They have a chart paper-- preferably black. On it they paint a nice silver border. Very pretty! Then they choose a topic . Next, they google the topic, select first 7 or 8 sites, and at random copy paste some bits from each website. This they print out (not even changing font size) , cut out the prints, paste them artistically on the black chart paper .. and lo behold a POSTER!!.
They have no idea that this amounts to plagiarism or that this is not what a poster is supposed to be like at their level.
These students have regularly won poster competitions both in our own college and elsewhere. So I think this is how posters are made everywhere.


As you grow older, does it become more easy or more difficult to accept opinions opposing your own? I am not sure of the answer.
When you are young you have a firm belief that what you experience or what you think is the only truth and this is strangely coupled with an insecurity that makes it necessary to have that view endorsed.
As you grow older, you are less firm in your views but also need less endorsement from others and are more accepting of others' views.
I would like to think this is how it is. I know this is how it is with me when it comes to trivial matters. But will it stand the test of some serious differences? I don't know.
An embarassing episode happened to me. When I was 17 or 18 years old, I used to read a lot, and I had just read Anna Karenina. A friend who did not read much, was my bouncing board for thoughts and ideas. I was one day expressing the view that love was everything and marriage, fidelity etc was prisons of society. I was actually thinking aloud about this.
However, about 25 years later, the friend and I met up at the airport just as she was leaving , and she told me that she was contemplating an extra marital affair because of that conversation. She believed that I would still be of the same view!!
How can a 18 year old understand what leaving a husband and child to go away with a lover, will do to her, her child , her husband and even her lover? And how can a 40+ year old woman not understand that at 18, one is just trying out ideas ?
Every now and then, the TV cameras show FCI godowns where food rots in tonnes and then people dying of hunger. We are shocked, but it happens again. I have seen/read about this ever ever I remember( and I am pretty old). Nothing is done about it. I can understand the inertia of a large nation as ours. It is bound to be so. But not letting grain rot is not so difficult is it?
Black market-- I can understand, land grabbing ? yes profitable! But food just lying around to rot? Who can benefit from that? What political will is needed to either distribute it or store it better? There cannot be any vested interest in letting grain rot.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


I see from all the blogs I follow, that people tend to follow blogs of other like-minded people (obviously?). But the problem is that, barring minor disagreements, everyone has more or less the same opinions on most issues. So how does one get a wider picture?
This applies to me too.
Would I follow hard core hindutva blog?
Or a islamic fundamentalist's blog?
A male chauvinist blog?
A Nazi blog?
Equally, I wouldn't be interested in a feminist blog, or an one of those arty people's blog, or a communist's blog.
I guess I don't want a wide picture. I just want my own views validated.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Role reversal

I had got this mp3 player for myself, and it was lying in its carton for a month. Having none of my children living with me is a great handicap in the tech area. So I was forced to figure it out myself. Now finally, I have loaded a few pieces of music on my player.
Now I must figure out how to get a youtube lecture/video on it.
The role reversal sort of creeps on one. One day, you are telling your children how to do this and that. Suddenly one fine morning, they are saying"Not like that ma, I'll do it..." a little impatiently.


In the wetlands Srikakulam district, Nagarjuna Constr planned to put up a thermal plant. There was a huge agitation by the locals and now the environment approval has been withdrawn.
Then there are the mining leases to the Reddys.
We all know that govt approval can be obtained to produce hydrogen cyanide and release it in the atmosphere if we grease a few palms and perhaps call it by a fancy trade name.
That at least in some cases there is a rethink, is something that gives us a glimmer of hope.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


Nowadays, whenever I switch on the TV, I see football and nothing else. So now the choice is between football or tear-jerker serials...so I chose football though I am totally clueless about sports. I am glad that some sport has ousted cricket off the airwaves. We make too much of cricket. However, in spite of my ignorance, I feel this hype about top goal scorers is a bit much. Top run getters in cricket is one thing, but top goal scorers is quite another. As I understand it, scoring a goal is a team effort, run getting is an individual effort. So why this hype on people who have scored 5 goals or more?

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The thought of someone just chopping off a man's hand like one would chop off a piece of wood, is horrifying. It's inhuman. Like a shark underwater.
To be unnecessarily provocative, like teasing a tiger in a zoo enclosure, who does it and what does it achieve? If the tiger could bite you, it would.
By all means be rude about someone else's religious beliefs if it achieves any good purpose. But a university question paper? We all know the intellectual level at which the university exam questions are pitched.
So why does a person tease the tiger?

Sunday, 4 July 2010


It seems the world's most expensive city is Luanda. Never would have thought it. But on second thoughts, I do expect it! In Africa, middle east, India ---many places, widespread poverty always existed beside incredible riches. This asymmetry is what makes poverty shameful. A country where there is no money, no one is rich, people are poor. It's a fact of life. But in a country where there are some of the world's richest people, to have grinding poverty, is obscene.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Politics and education.

The govt. of AP had decided that all students from backward communities will not pay fees to colleges. This applies to profesional colleges and to colleges conducting PG courses. The govt. had promised to pay the colleges the fees for these students. They all got admitted, but now the govt. has no money. The colleges are protesting. Most private colleges are self-financed -- that means, they pay salaries to faculty and non teaching staff, to buy equipment and consumables, maintain college buildings, everything with the money they collect as fees from students. Now more than half the students have not paid fees. The income for these colleges has become half or less. So the college managements threatened to close the colleges. There was a hue and cry about this and the CM had insisted they open. But how will they pay the staff? how will they buy consumables?
The problem is that the late YSR made this promise, but the state exchequer is empty. The current CM is in a fix...damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Stressful coaching classes

There is real evidence that the stress is specially bad for adolescents.
We send our children to coaching classes where they are constantly pushed all through their adolescence. The ill effects of coaching is not just psychological, it is biological and biochemical.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Fees for coaching

Yesterday I was trying to explain how an acid-base indicator works to my students. To explain colour perception, I asked "If you mix 10 drops of red ink and 10 drops of blue ink in a beaker of water, what colour will the solution be?" The answers were --- black, brown, green. Why do I even bother? Now you understand why I complain about coaching classes. When you join a coaching class, you have to deposit your common sense and common knowledge at the fees counter.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Essay writing

"Composition is the first lesson for Chinese to learn about telling lies," Han Han, a renowned writer and blogger, was quoted by Global Times.
Chinese students, as many in India, must write compositions exactly as per format in order to get good marks. Well, we all have heard this by now. But the reason is what surprises me. [ To stop them from making up stories, they should be encouraged to think more and experience more," she said.]
You experience more if you follow the straight and narrow path of essay writing-as-per-format???

Friday, 11 June 2010


The 'fundamental flaw' in our BSc courses is that it is neither fish nor fowl. I am repeating myself here. It is neither rigorous enough to cater to the would-be scientist, nor is it down-to-earth enough to give the students practical usable skills.
A graduate with a BSc in electronics cannot repair (let alone design) a cd player, someone with a BSc Chemistry cannot measure the pH of water in a pond.
There have been some proposals two years ago to address this, but nothing has happened on ground as far as I can see.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010


Another academic year begins.
Students are still not very keen on joining for a BSc in life science subjects as seen by the fact that very few have applied for seats in our college for a life science course.
The reason is that a large number of Pharmacy colleges have opened in the last two years in AP.
Students (their parents more likely) prefer to get a BPharm degree to getting a BSc degree. The perception is that job opportunities are much more likely for a person with a BPharm.
Secondly, what does one do with a BSc? Do an MSc? Ok then what?Ummm....well, maybe a PhD? how many years is that? well....maybe 9 or 10 for the whole process....WHAT?
I don't blame them really, but it may mean we are out of a job in the next couple of years .....

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

School ethos

I studied for a while in one of those posh schools in the hills. Those days, they were run by British women missionaries. I joined in the 8th class . It was a boarding school, and all the girls were issued pocket money and stationery every Saturday. After one month, one Saturday, the class was made to give me round of applause. Why? Because I had consumed the least amount of stationery that month. I did not lose my pencil or eraser, did not spill my ink, did not waste my notebook pages...
Now that's a kind of achievement anyone, howsoever lacking in talent, can aspire to. It led me to achievements in academics. It also made a virtue of frugality.
Schools nowadays...at least the coaching-class kind, have no avenues for children to achieve in real terms. That's why those who do not get into a medical college/IIT are left with such deep emptiness...that a 18 year old should NEVER have to deal with. Such emptiness that comes with maybe losing ones parents or similar tragedy, these children face for no real reason.
We are producing tragedies out of happiness.....take a happy 13 year old, put him through 6 years of coaching - produce a deeply unhappy young man. A great recipe for a dysfunctional society!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

R-H vortex

Some years back, I first came across an amazing phenomenon -- the Ranque Hilsch vortex. My physics is below pathetic level, but this concept I find really exciting.

An example they give for entropy and time in any video lecture...water poured out of a glass and water going back into the glass...
For a bath, I mix a bit of steaming hot water with some cold water....if I could reverse the process and get a little hot water and a little cold water from tepid water, how amazing that would be!
That's how this phenomenon is. It's amazing. Of course it's not the same, but the result says that's what has happened doesn't it?
I have seen that it is used for spot cooling but never for larger volumes.
Is it truly not possible to do this on larger scale to have eco friendly air conditioning? or is it just that no one has tried it out yet?

Thursday, 27 May 2010


In the last two months, I have had a series of aged relatives dying. They all went peacefully. One uncle aged 89 or so, just did not get up from a nap, my mother-in-law, was having a conversation, and just slipped away, another uncle just slipped away into death one afternoon...all were above 80. I am beginning to believe that once you cross 80 or so, the chances are, you die peacefully- the way we were meant to die....just not be alive anymore.
I hope I die like that.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

what students taught me

One thing I learnt from students is how much more worldly wise they are than I.
On a train on a college tour, this student hangs out near the bathroom for almost an hour. I am a bit suspicious, but just let it pass. Turns out he's drinking. Policeman comes along and threatens to book him. Now I know the policeman wants to be paid off, but I don't know how the topic is raised. I just request him to let the boy off, since otherwise I will have to get down in some god-forsaken town in AP and go with him to the police station. Along come two of his friends, "Ma'm we'll handle this" and they manage to sort it out. I however, still do'nt know how to go about this bribery thing.

Monday, 24 May 2010


I certainly did not and probably will never have the courage to not send my children to school at all.
However, I noticed very clearly, specially with my older offspring that school diminished his mental abilities noticeably. He used to be very, very observant at age 3, noticing minutae and arriving at theories regarding these minutae which were totally logical within the framework he had. An example is that I am taller than my mother who in turn, is taller than my grandmother. With this observation, he told me seriously one day "you know, we all grow taller and taller till a certain age, then we start to grow shorter again till we become the size of babies."
Once in school, he stopped telling me these profound theories. I assume he stopped thinking that way. Still I would send him to school if I had to do it again.
However, a few parents are now experimenting with not sending their children to school. I don't know if it is a good thing or not. If your kid has an inclination towards -say - sculpture and is spectacularly good at it, then he/she can make a living out of it......it will work...maybe he can at a later date become apprenticed to some artist and learn sculpting. But what if your child is not spectacularly good at anything...just an ordinary kid? Then with no formal education, not knowing many things we take for granted, how will he/she make a living.
I notice that those who opted for this are quite well to do themselves. What do they think their children will make a living out of?

Saturday, 22 May 2010

synthetic life??

All this noise about synthetic life! Maybe I haven't understood it fully, but really as far as I can see it's Genetic Engg. 2.0...the usual genetic engg. taken to a much higher level.
I was quite pleased to see others voicing the similar opinions.....perhaps my understanding is not the problem.
What would qualify as synthetic life is if the whole cell or enough parts of it were synthesised and that started replicating.
Nowadays on the TV one sees shows with live audience....it's become the in thing to loudly applaud everything with a lot of noise. Guest comes in..loud applause (OK) ....guest sits down- loud applause (why? guest achieved the feat of sitting on the couch?)......you get the picture.
This phenomenon of hyperbole has perhaps come into science....is this synthetic life?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Sometimes you come across good schools and good Principals in rural India. This school Principal is indeed far sighted.

Thursday, 20 May 2010


If journals are becoming so expensive, why can't the bigwigs of any area of research set up a website and then publish online with open access? You get to read all the others' data almost as soon as they get it analysed, and your work gets seen by everyone who matters.
So what is the flip side to this except for Elsevier? Or am I being naive?
Another aspect-
For a person not working in any Instt., getting to read a paper is really difficult. Nowadays, this is not of much interest to me, but 20 years back, it was a big contributing factor to why my career in science got aborted. However, in the interest of women or men who choose to take a break, it is essential to be able to keep in touch with what's happening (in between nappy changes for example).
Why cannot an IIX/University , allow membership and online access to its libraries for any of its alumni on the payment of an affordable fee? (remember the person is unemployed- so affordable has to be really inexpensive).

BTW, one of my ex students is working for her PhD in the XXX University and she says she can access only free online journals and I know that the Departments at the University do not have many print journals after the 1970's . So how do they get their lit. survey done? Is this the norm in all universities?
An article reminded me of the travails of paper chase in the 70's.......one goes from Own lib to INSDOC to DGHS ....to any place likely to have the journal one needs....
There is a law that says...if in the third library 20 km and 2 hour bus ride away, you find the right journal, right issue, the chances of the required page being torn away is 95.5%
The top floor of the IISc library had amazing journals...from the mid 19th century.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Homer Simpson

The DU episode where the Chemistry Dept said "Oops!! forgot to remove the cobalt source before calling the Kabadi walla" reminds me of the title track of The Simpsons.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A recent article by Mashelkar seems to have annoyed a few people . It was a reaction to Mashelkar's prescription that a dose of irreverance would see Indian science scale terrific heights.
I wonder what would have happened if one of the lowly pool officers (do they still have pool officers in CSIR?) had walked up to him and said "Dude! gimme 20 lakhs -I have this great idea..........." when he was the DGCSIR.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

forest cover and adivasis

The reduction of forest cover and the consequent displacement of adivasis, need not even be looked at altruistically. Just look at it in pure self interest. It is in our self interest to retain forest cover. It is in our self interest to let the adivasis live in their ancestral lands. It is in our self interest to see that the adivasis and other economically backward sections get basic rights to food,education, shelter, medicare.
In pure selfishness, we don't want to lose forest cover because we will not get any water in our taps. We do not want the dispossesed to be drifting and entering our metros and living in shanty towns. We do not want people desperate enough to turn to crime in large numbers and commit dacoities in our towns.
So let us not care one bit for the adivasis, the poor, the dispossesed. Let us only care about ourselves...the well-being of the urban elite. So, let the forest cover be maintained, the adivasis retain their land rights, the dispossesed get their basic requirements fulfilled.. so that we may live safe in our cities, enjoy good water supply, not be gated into high-security communities.

Friday, 30 April 2010

radio isotopes

A Chemistry Department selling radioactive source as scrap!!! Now no one in DU can use radioisotopes....imagine forgetting to remove a radioactive source from a junked instrument. Now that the DU 's license to use radioactive source has been withdrawn, there must be a number of projects in the Chem, Biochem, etc departments that would be left hanging...and the number of research scholars whose degree now will seem a remote possibilty.
But such things are waiting to happen.
In the 70's many research labs. used radioisotopes casually ... in the regular lab space. No badge, no checking by BARC, nothing. It used to scandalise and scare me.
I thought that things must have improved since my time, but doesn't seem to have.
Science is often done by people have no aptitude for it.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

sks-cl academy

Bodhi academies are schools that will give English medium education to children in rural areas at fee of less than Rs 200-per month. These are proper for-profit enterprises run by the SKS microfinance . An old report stated that SKS will run schools along with Career Launcher - a coaching academy for CAT GRE TOEFL etc. I am not sure if they are still associated.
I wonder how they will pay the teachers!
Last year, I did a bit of volunteer work at a school in a village in TN. The teachers were by and large, sincere. They were paid by the government, but the govt did not pay for anything else. The students cleaned the school everyday after classes. The classroom had a roster for this. The principal had persuaded the teachers to pool in Rs 1000 each to pay for painting the school. The school has an old building built during the British days and it is maintained really well. I was really impressed by the school-- its buildings and its work culture. The other schools in the village also seemed as good--they were run by missionaries. Not all village schools are run down and depressing.

In my student days, tuition classes were unheard of..... or, to be more exact, they were for those who could not cope with academics in regular schools...children who failed regularly. So they were unheard of...you did not boast that your son needed tuition. In fact to my great humiliation, I had to go for tuition to improve my Hindi when I moved to a small UP town in my 6th class. Then slowly, the concept of tuition changed. It was the class geniuses who went for coaching so that they could perhaps " learn" differential equations in the 5th class!!!

Of late, some of the more 'modern' parents agree that coaching classes are not good and instead send their 6 year olds to "Brain Gyms" where the children learn to use the abacus, do mental arithmetic, Vedic math etc. Of course, this is helpful in boosting a child's confidence since he can multiply and divide fast and arrive at the answer before his less fortunate friends who count on fingers can.

But do these really boost the child's cognitive skills? Some evidence that it may not

Monday, 19 April 2010

One of the blogs I read is by a prof. who sometimes cribs about the amount of her time wasted by the work on different committees.
I don't know if her attitude is the norm in the US, but it contrasts with the attitude of university faculty here in India. Being on different committees is a badge of honour. More the committee to adorn, bigger a boost to their ego. Lack of time to teach or do research, is quite acceptable in lieu of being a part of, or heading a committee.
Further, I can quite understand that feeling (maybe even think the same if I were to be given the chance) I think, as a people, we are fond of officialdom and committees.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

technology and the senior citizen

The Hindu has an article about how the elderly are using technology...some are terrified of it while others have taken to it. Of course, the older you are, the longer it takes to learn.
"Those who have resisted change feel vulnerable, oblivious to how critical the computer will be to help them as they become more housebound. "
I read a blog by an 84 year old lady. My parents, who are 85 and 75 , are regular net surfers.
But a statement Allis makes is what makes me write. He says "If there is a silver lining, it is this: The next generation of seniors — the baby boomers — will not have to go through this wrenching change. They know how to reboot, IM, and tweet."
But how do we know that 20 years from now, some entirely new technology won't have come up, which bewilders us, even those of us who are tech-savvy -middle-aged people now?
We too may end up bewildered by the new technology which is at the moment beyond our imagination.
I am similarly bothered by sci fi writers whose aliens are mildly mutated humans...the aliens have two legs, speak some kind of language, have two or at a pinch, three eyes...just slight variations on our biology. Maybe if there are aliens, we may not even recognise them as aliens.
Why do people limit the possibilities to what is known?
The unthinkable does happen.
20 years back, facebook was beyond our imagination
200 years back, computers were beyond our imagination
2000 years back automobiles were beyond our imagination.
Something that is unimaginable now, will come up in the next 20 years and many of my age group will be bewildered.

Monday, 5 April 2010


I have never formally studied logic. It's quite complicated and beyond me. But common sense logic..yes one does appreciate that and I believed that I was quite good at that.
However, in that too, surprisingly often, I am proved wrong.
One such thing was autoimmune diseases.
I thought -- if one is afflicted with some autoimmune disorders, at least one will not succumb to common ailments...you won't catch a cold every third week..etc... efficient immune system isn't it?
The angle that I never thought about is this...with autoimmune diseases, the immune system is overloaded trying to fight its own body that it is quite inefficient when it comes to repelling externl attacks. Double disaster!!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

bt again

On the one hand, researchers have clear evidence that viral/parasitical genes can infiltrate our genome, and even become part of what we pass on to our children, on the other, they firmly state that the bt genes will not escape into the wild fauna/other crops nearby. This kind of blinkered approach does not make good science. The proponents of bt technology pooh-pooh concerns about the gene escaping . We do not know that it won't. Nor do we know how it will be manifested once it infiltrates other genomes, ....maybe the crop of wheat grown next to bt crop will acquire the bt gene and in that, it may produce toxins in the seeds (can you imagine acres of poisoned wheat?). We really do not know and this is a risk we should not have taken even with cotton. The risk is too huge...once a gene is in the wild, we have no control over what it infiltrates and how it will get manifested in other species.
Why is it unscientific to have these concerns?

Friday, 26 March 2010

Caste panchayats

Meham MLA says "these caste panchayats are good for society. They help me win elections"
All these years I was wondering what is really ideal for society..now I know.. Good society helps the current MLA of Meham win elections. Never mind if a few people are murdered by these panchayats for the 'grave crime' of getting married to each other. They keep society pure! Perhaps society is cleaned up by washing in blood!
The thing that bothers me most is not the killing as such, but the complete lack of any inkling in the MLA that killing a couple is a really horrible crime and the cheerful admission that the panchayat help him win elections and so nothing they do will be taken cognisance of.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

admin jobs in college

In private colleges, the lecturers double up as exam clerks, security persons, event manager, caterer--many more roles. In general, it's good because it gives you a sense of involvement. But of late, I had started getting a bit tired of it. Luckily, since I had taken the last academic year off to live in a hill station, I got deleted from all those committees--my jobs had been outsourced. This academic year, I did not have to check attendance registers, issue examination forms or hall tickets, did not have to arrange any of the various functions of the college. It is a relief, since I am getting too old to do so much work. But there is a small sneaking sense of not being in the loop.....foolish.

I love.......

The sound of a choir of young girls singing old hymns.
The smell of jasmine on a summer evening.
The sound of a spring bubbling behind my bedroom window.
Walking along the shoreline in the Marina beach in the 1960s (nowadays it's awful).
Sounds of children playing in the distance on a summer evening.
Walking on cold evenings when I am warmly covered.
Watching the rain from a sheltered spot.
The feel of approaching winter.
Smell of old books in old libraries.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


Antara Dev Sen in today's DC about education in India and the possible impact of foreign universities setting up shop here. I find her Little Magazine one sided in its views. But in this article, I feel entirely in agreement with her.
A recent incident has highlighted the frustration of teaching undergrads. The University does not seem to care whether you teach well or not. There are a lot of opinions on this.
Most people seem to value research over teaching. Most feel both should be done. The truth is many may not be able to do both well. Peter Atkins says as much in the recent issue of Nature. His contribution to Chemistry is probably worth many researchers', since countless undergrads learn from his textbook(s).
I think good teaching should be valued as much as research, unless the research is really outstanding.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

When I was a student, often elderly gentlemen would ask me..."so you are doing research in Chemistry? tell me what is this made of?" after picking up a random object. I would say, "Well I don't know. One has to test it ...." and they would shake their heads and with varying degree of politeness let me know that I must be useless if even with a PhD, I cannot tell them what an object is made of. After sometime , I got a little smarter, and would say " oh this is surely made of 20% aluminum, about 33% steel about..." at random just to avoid the sad head shaking.
Another question I would always get was "what is the use of this research?" I would be unable to answer that too, since my PhD work was studies on some complexes of one of the less common metals. Again I would cook up stories on how one can get useful materials from this(true in a way, but that wasn't really what I was doing at that time)
Those days I believed science was done just because you wanted to know. Now I am more inclined to believe that science specially in a resource-poor country like ours, must be either the earth-shaking- pushing-the-frontiers-of-knowledge kind of research, or the kind that is of use in the near future... ways to grow crop in arid zones, ways to purify water at low cost, the cliched cure for cancer, cheaper efficient energy sources, etc.
The kind that I did, though it got me good papers in good journals, were not meaningful enough and I was not mature enough to see that.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


Four infants died after mmr shots.
Not maintaining the cold chain is said to be the probable cause.
I had once felt annoyed by someone who had commented about people not immunising their children and that being very unscientific...or words to that effect in one of the blogs I read.
This is what makes me thankful that I don't have small children to vaccinate. In fact, few years back, my daughter was admitted to a course in one of the institutes, where all the freshers had to have an anti-hepatitis shot. The vaccine was in a thermocol jar (the kind in which 2.5 l bottles of sulfuric acid are supplied) in the lecture hall at about 1 pm. The doctor was still administering the vaccine at 4 pm. I signed a statement saying that I had already given her an anti-hepatitis vaccine (true) and didn't want a booster dose. Three or four hours in a thermocol jar in July...what cold-chain are we talking about?
Weighing the risks, I feel, specially for boys, a bit of measles is better than the MMR shot. In any medical shop, vaccines are kept in a normal fridge. The temp. inside probably goes up to 25 or even 30 C after long power cuts that are regular features of life in our towns and cities.
Luckily for my peace of mind, when my kids were infants, this thought about break in cold chain did not occur to me. I only realised this when they were a little older and then I could plan their immunisation boosters before the summer power cuts. Except of course when my son got nipped by a dog. Now I will worry only when I have grandchildren.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The other side of the coin

A comment on my previous post brings me to the huge deficiency in my education , and in that of those like me who were educated in English in a place away from their birthplace. I was born in Madras, educated in UP and Delhi. Being a south Indian, I found Hindi taught in UP schools tough and just managed to do well enough in exams to get by decently. I never got to learn my mother tongue inspite of my mother's nagging every summer vacation. Now I can speak Tamil, but cannot read or write adequately. I can speak Hindi, read and write with facility, but not well enough for literary efforts. So if I were a writer, I would be forced to write in English because that is the only language in which I am well- read. I have read books in English from the age of 5 or so, from Noddy, to other Enid Blytons, to classics, to poetry, Shakespeare ...etc. But that education now is isolating me from children whom I would like to communicate to. After my retirement, I would like to spend a couple of hours every day teaching in the zilla parishad schools, but I do not speak Telugu well enough to teach.
Moral of the story, no one has had a good education, and if anyone is well educated, it is thanks to his/her own efforts, rather than to the school system.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

English medium education

The kids in the tribal childrens' hostel in our campus, sometimes come to the college canteen and get food. I think the canteen people give them some food, once in a way. I wished to teach them but did not manage to do much. All I managed was to make them sit and study for their unit tests and exams. I hope the coming year, I can do some work with them and teach them to speak well in English. Those of us who speak, read and write English well, do not realise the limited avenues opened for those who do not. Good higher education is not available in Indian languages, unless of course one studies the language itself--obviously, best Hindi scholars will be in India. Hence, a student from an Indian language based education, has to shift to an English medium college after studying till the 10th in hindi/telugu/tamil etc. This in itself is a daunting task.
So usually, a child from a local language medium school, has not much scope for higher education even if s/he is very proficient in math/science/any other subject. We must be losing a lot of manpower that way. Since these children do not have the two words " engg./medicine drilled into them from childhood, they are more likely to become innovative thinkers if they could get over this language barrier. I saw this in the village where I spent last year. I also occasionally listen to some young girls speak in the "pattimandram" like Visu's "arattai arangam"(not sure of the name)-- debates organised by some Tamil TV channels. These programs are held in the districts and one finds young girls and boys speaking with such skills...logical, well reasoned arguments, wonderful examples to prove their point, and some humour. ... and the flow of language! amazing....it gives me an inferiority complex. There must be a quick way to learn English well.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Some of the ads on our tv are really good. I like Raymonds ads. The MP govt tourism ad is really good- the first one with Hindustan ka dil dekho. The old ad for Hutch with the boy and the dog--many such ads.
One kind of ad never fails to bother me- why do they put up ads for Television sets or tv service providers stating picture quality as the reason you should buy the product...Saif Ali Khan says..."see the difference in picture quality" or words to taht effect .. ad for Airtel digital TV. Now if I have to appreciate the good picture quality on my existing TV set , then my TV set/service provider is equally good. Then, why would I buy yours?

Monday, 1 March 2010

Correcting papers

The most unpleasant part of my job are the examinations...invigilating and correcting papers. The first is mind-numbing and the second mind-boggling.
When I correct papers, I wonder what goes on in students' minds. What are their cognitive abilities...
I quote from papers written by second year BSc students to whom I taught physical and general chemistry this year.
" The plane of symmetry contain one water molecules on the perpendicular to plane. The water molecules on both sides." I wonder what it means.
Someone else who taught inorganic chem hasn't fared much better...
"Lanthanide contraction:according to lanthanide contraction, electrons are very much defused"
Good thing I say! ...the darn things might have exploded in our faces! does lanthanide contraction have any other vishesh tippani?
I used to be in charge of conducting and correcting/valuing the answer scripts for a compulsory exam in a subject called "science and civilisation" I used to correct a huge number of these papers every year(about 600). Long ago, when my son was about 13 yrs old, he was sick and I had stayed home to look after him. I had brought home some of these papers to correct. I read out some of the answers...he fell out of his bed laughing.
These papers were a great source of entertainment.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

I was just listening to a video lecture , one of the MIT OCW lectures. The lecture was an introduction to chemistry and dealt with the periodic table, atoms etc. In conclusion, the prof said that a new element was just discovered, with zero protons, but three hundred -odd neutrons cosisting of vice neutrons, assistant neutrons etc.... and the element was named Administratium with symbol Ad and the name was put up for approval to the IUPAC... and some properties-you can guess what properties. All in a serious tone.
A nice drama, amusing, though carried to a little excessive length. But my point is this- if I ever did such a thing in my class, barring maybe 10 or 15, the rest of the class would have written it as an answer to my exam question on the periodic table/ heavy elements. They would have believed it.
But what is even funnier, is that when my daughter was in school, one of her classmates told the Chemistry teacher that a new element was discovered and it was named Linkinpark and the teacher believed it. Of course, not having teenage kids does give you a disadvantage..you dont keep up to date with rock bands.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


A hypothetical scenario:- People want to get a foothold in an area where it is difficult to do so. They talk persuasively to students about some cause...some cause that is likely to interest them.....tell them-if we have this and this from the govt., you will get good jobs, you will become rich.... tell them anything.
Students, individually, are as intelligent as any average human, but in a crowd, they are more malleable than the average human. Being a part of a crowd affects decision making in all of us, but it is more pronounced in college students. They totally suspend disbelief and rationality. Perhaps it is because they are used to take the word of anyone who speaks to them from a podium. Or it is the lack of responsibilities....no wife and kids to think about before taking decisions.. I do not know, but they take the stupidest decisions when egged on by a crowd. They can be manipulated to do anything....commit suicide, or murder.. anything without thinking.
The tragedy is that the parents who sent these boys to college in the hope that they will be educated and get jobs, get back their bodies in a cloth.
But the people whose agenda is being fulfilled are happy.. each death takes them closer to their goal...

Thursday, 11 February 2010


The famous bacillus is in the news again. Jairam Ramesh has taken a balanced view...he has not condemned it outright, nor accepted it without question. All trangenic species must be studied for over a few generations. secondly, once let into the wild (though that is a fait accompli with bt cotton) we have no idea what the gene will do. It is like faith in God... that good will come out of our technological manipulations. Other scary ideas are the geoengineering ideas of curing global warming like the sulfur clouds in the stratosphere!!! I don't need to be particularly intelligent to realise that such actions will go far beyond my control once I initiate them.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

paid content

Open-source science takes on neglected disease: paid content

Does anyone else see the irony in the title from the list of Nature articles?

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

I received comments twice from a reader in Chinese/Japanese/some similar script. Since I cannot read them, I do not post them. If they are genuine comments, my apologies to the reader.
Language is something that can be viewed as a release or as a prison.
For the articulate person, language is a release. You give expression to your thoughts or at least use language to organise your thoughts. If you are inarticulate, if you have poor language skills, it must be very difficult to have feelings, but not be able to express them, to even understand them since you do not have words for what you feel. You cannot understand what you do not have words for. It is a prison.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

native intelligence

The Azim Premji foundation in one of its numerous studies has found out the expectation parents have from education.
You ask any urban middle class parent, his answer to the question "what do you expect from educating your child?" the answer would be " a highly paid job"
Ask a rural illiterate, he says "knowledge" . This is not a quote from "mera gaon, mera desh" type fiction. It is a quote from this study by the APF.
So when did our urban parent lose his native good sense?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Educational technology

Do they really need us?
A talk on TED about the interesting Hole in the wall project.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

life in other worlds.

Many of my students live in a different Universe (Multiverse). I often have this conversation.
Me: Hello X! You've done well in the exam. What are your plans for your future?
X: Ma'm I am going to Carnegie Mellon.
Me: That's excellent. Have they given you any aid? or fee waiver?
X: I'll get that ma'm..no problem.
Me: Good! So, when are you leaving?
X: I will be writing GRE next month. Then I can go.
Me: Oh.......
Leaves me with nothing to say.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Prof Gyan Prakash says something that has been in my mind for long. The big difference is, in my mind the thought was not clear enough for me to articulate it. We praise democracy and I am always angered by those who decry it and favour autocratic governance. But in the recent years, particularly after the Babri masjid, I have been troubled by the fact that a large group of people...say a few thousand, can do exactly what they wish to do just because the remaining millions are not gathered together in one location opposing what they wish to do. The mob tyranny.
It has come to stay in our country. A few thousand do not constitute majority in our country, still, their writ runs! Why has this come to pass? Are we to blame?
Anytime you and a group of your friends want something, you get together and burn down shops built out of someone's hard labour....you burn buses and the city raises bus fares burdening millions who need to use buses.... you declare a bandh and thousands are left without earnings and food for the day..you block trains and many are stranded with hungry babies...
Why have we become hostage to hooligans?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Autos in chennai and other places

I read a post about Chennai autos. I am moved to add my two bits worth to the serious issue of condemning Chennai autodrivers. The only other place comparable for auto-athiyachar is Coimbatore.
They not only overcharge you terribly, but are rude to boot.
When my son as a toddler, an auto I hailed asked for more-than-usual extortionist fare. I protested..he replies " Edhukku niruththinema?" "then why did you stop me?"
If you are carrying a large load of shopping bags, or have a little child, they are more extortionate.
Last summer, one auto driver charged me 100Rs to go to Annanagar HP service centre. I protested, but he told me it's so hot. I said,well it's hot for me too. He says you sit in AC office so you can pay. That really made me furious. I am going to a service centre to get my laptop repaired and getting back to a very much non AC place. In any case, where's the logic?
A few years ago, when my daughter was a young girl, we were going by an auto, I just wanted to stop and let her get down on the other side of the road with a quick U turn at aproper signal...
The auto driver had the cheek to say " ennamma unnoda thollaiapochu" meaning..you are a big nuisance....
By chance, a few meters ahead, by a strange quirk, the ignition key just fell off from the auto. He was forced to stop and retrace searching for the key. I just let him have it...never enjoyed ticking off someone so much.
Of late, there is a slight improvement...not much though.
Nowhere else have I seen such unreasonable auto drivers as in Madras.
Here, where I live, they may ask for 5 Rs extra when the traffic is bad, or if you are going to a place where they dont get return passengers, but nothing like charging 100% extra as in Madras. Secondly, here if you dont want to pay, they are polite to you...they just go off...in Chennai, you get a lecture on the miserliness of people...or how people will buy stuff for 1000 rupees but not pay a poor auto driver 50 Rs (for 2 km)....
Here, I have had nice chats with auto drivers....one asked my opinion on whether he did right in not forcing his son and daughter to do engineering, but study for a BA social service instead. I heartily congratulated him...specially since his children were both working for Helpage.
One auto driver asked me for financial advice......my children laughed the whole evening.

affiliated colleges

The chairman of Tamil Nadu Virtual University says the problems in our higher education is due to the fact that the bulk of the teaching-learning process is done in affiliated colleges and not in the university campuses; that 84% of the faculty are not expected to do research.
I disagree.
Of course, many affiliated colleges are bad, BUT--
Many affiliated colleges do a better job of teaching undergrads than do the university constituent colleges. One reason is the market forces. The private affiliated colleges are totally self financed. They have to compete for student admissions and fill up their seats and they have to be good enough to attract students willing to pay the high tuition fees charged by them. Their students must get admission into good institutions for their PG or get good jobs. Hence they are under pressure to perform well and get a good reputation.
The university our college is affiliated to, has a few good professors, but the bulk are in for political reasons. There are many faculty members in the parent university who are really bad academically. The quality of research, barring a very few, is quite pathetic.
The appointment of key functionaries of the university is governed by politics.
There is a resource crunch and the university research scholars do not have access to many journals-- most equipment is lying useless--under repair for years; very little money to order chemicals.
Finally, I do not believe that research skills is necessary to teach undergrads. The need is to make the students understand basic concepts of the subject thoroughly before they pass out of the college. For that what the teacher needs is good communication skills and a good understanding of the basics of the subject s/he teaches- and a lot of patience.
Post graduate students of course need to be taught by people involved in research-- or so you would think. My short stint (three semesters) at teaching MSc students in my college has made me believe otherwise...they are absolute dummies....literally...no response in class- no questions-not even a lifting of an eyebrow or a nod to indicate I have been heard... they sit like they are a few mannequins placed to look like I am taking a class.(The undergrads are not that bad....every class has at least 5 -10 students who ask questions, are willing to read up ...) These PG students were from the biochemistry department and I was teaching spectroscopic methods to them.... I used to slog over my lecture notes for hours before each lecture taking care to provide biochemical examples....sheer waste of time.... all they needed were notes...you give some notes, they learn and reproduce in the exam.
Now what research skill do I need to do that? All I needed to do was open a book by one Dr Satyanarayana, or maybe one Dr Wilson, rewrite a few pages in simple language and hand it out to them. I just need to be literate --that's all.