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

Op-ed

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

vaccination

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

advertisement

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.

When I was a child, festivals were fun. They were about good food, perhaps new clothes, some token praying (from the kids' point of vie...