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.

April 17th op-ed in the Hindu has two articles. One  about the HERC and another about research in medical colleges. First the article abo...