Thursday, October 12, 2006

Five years in the wilderness

It was 12:40 pm. The chemistry lecture was on in L7, one of our lecture halls. The chemistry professor, in his typical broken English and Bengali accent, was starting to lecture on spin and orbital angular momenta. He had said absolutely nothing on the topic till then. He walked to the board and wrote "B = H0 + (4*pi*M) where M = magnetization" Is that the way to start a lecture? Then he said "you must have seen a similar formula during your JEE days". Someone in the first row asked him where the 4*pi came from. Apparently, this way of teaching was perfectly natural for the others. After all, who wants to waste time on pondering over the motivation, the significance, and anything related to the topic? Anyway the instructor does not need to stop for a moment and let the students think how to approach the (unspecified) problem. How can we do that if we have to touch upon the whole of chemistry ever done in 4 months? "B = H0 + (4*pi*M)" is a good beginning. You know the formula, great. Then you can apply it in trillions of problems, with different B's! You can get hundreds of marks, gloat, eat, breath, drink, sink, cover yourselves in billions of marks! Anyway, he then proceeded to derive another formula (derive is not the word, sorry, derive implies some logic) . He then glanced at the students and said, "Dont worry. You dont need to be frightened. I will simplify this formula." He the proceeded to write "mu(M) = sqrt(n(n+2)) BM" on the board. "This is easy to apply", he said with a satisfied smirk on his face. "Some people prefer using the equation with s, some with n". That inane comment then rounds up the inept handling of the subject. After all, isn't which formula you apply more important than what you are doing, if you have to produce millions of "scientific" papers per month, which also serve the useful purpose of being used as wallpapers in laboratories to hide the drab walls whose paint is peeling off? Drown yourself in papers. Publish bajillion papers based on other work by varying a few parameters, and you are a great scientist!
Visions of millions of scientists conscentiously poring over papers and creating zillions of sheets filled with data written in crabbed handwriting in a room, with the walls being papered with their papers and the photos of this year's nobel prize winners floated in my head. Beats me why these people have a fascination for keeping these photos on their walls. Maybe to delude themselves that they are doing some scientific work.
No! I didn't join Physics to become one of these faceless horrors churning out data! I doubt whether these people can sit down and think about the philosophical aspects of a theory. No, it is much easier to say that dxy rotates 45 degrees to d(x2-y2), twirl your hands suggestively, and say that this is orbital angular momentum, without stopping to think what an orbital means. Even if this plainly is not a logical extrapolation of classical physics, what the hell, you can derive formulae! Bajillions of beautiful formulae! Thousands of staggering papers with zillions of tables with many beautiful decimals! For the MBA oriented people, this means you can answer two three questions in the endsem! 15 marks! I can almost see these thoughts in a milder form swirling around in the empty faces of the people around me. People who have never had the chance or inclination to have an abstract thought, forget that, an honest thought, a thought not related to the furthering of their career. I am surrounded by a sea of such people. An orderly, marching sea. Each walking in a well defined line towards a career. Eyes fixed straight ahead. As I look around in confusion, for someone to share my thoughts, I see empty faces, empty heads. Very suggestive of the movie Equilibrium.
There is a tremendous feeling of loneliness, a lack of intellectual companionship. Have I come to the wrong place? Why are the others like this? Is it the same elsewhere? Such thoughts created an internal turmoil in my mind. Meanwhile, outwardly, I calmly listened to the lecture. After the lecture, my thoughts went further. After coming to this place, what have I done, except write 50-60 exams, participate in hollow activities, read things and curse potatoes? I have no time. No time to read things of my interest extensively, no time to pursue my finer instincts. I havent written a poem in one and a half year. I havent drawn a portrait in one year.
What does this place do to people? Does it turn out automatons, robots who write CAT, machines who produce papers? Isnt there a bigger aspect to science? Isnt there a need for imagination? Is it a coincidence that great scientists who have changed the philosophical perception of science have keenly appreciated art? Shifts in perception dont come with millions of formulae. A higher plane of thought is required. Art, litertature, music, these are other, more accessible manifestations of this plane. But, hell, who thinks in such a manner? People here prefer sutta, a crass song with slang, to Stairway to Heaven. People who can fill in a poster colourfully are great "artists". Appreciating music and art isn't easy. Abstract thought isn't easy. I dont know how to put more than half of abstract thought in Telugu. It exists, but simply has gone out of normal usage. The language of science has irrevocably changed to English. More significantly, the language of philosophical speculation and abstract thought has become English. How can these people, who struggle with formulating a coherent sentence, have philosophical thoughts? I dont blame them, but I can't help feeling a surge of anger when a Kanpuriya (a localite), a big hulking fellow with huge hair, sits bovinely and says "arre yaar. ye sab hamaare liye nahi hain. bas formula bataado, aur ham lagaadenge", (Arre yaar is untranslateable. The rest mean "All this is not for us. Just tell the formula and we'll apply it." Again, "applying" is a weak translation of "lagaadenge") and another hulking fellow laughs and says "jugaadu!" (fraud) in a happy tone, glad to have found an intellectual (?) companion.
I guess this feeling has been intensified due to my having been in the olympiad camps, where we had an intelligent batch of people in one class. The experience of being in intellectual company lifts you up, and goads you to think, exercise your mental agilty and compete. After that, coming to this place, where the average Kanpuriya or Bihari has eyes and ears only for the average marks, and says "Arre yaar. Kuch samajh me nahi aa raha hai." (I am not understanding anything) and "Abe Angreji jyaada mat bolna hai" (Dont use too much English) has been a big comedown.
Wherever I look, I see emptiness. Hollowness. The signs of the grave. A mental grave.
As George Eliot says in Silas Marner -
"their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear. "Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?" I once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. "No," he answered, "I've never been used to nothing but common victual, and I can't eat that." Experience had bred no fancies in him that could raise the phantasm of appetite."
I am embarking on a journey, a voyage of five years in the wilderness...


Ashish Goel said...

I'm not sure if u remember me. Anyways, Himanshu Asnani told me abt your blogs. Many ppl feel the way u do, including me, to some extent. I won't say much, but mention what Varun Bhallerao had once told me in this regard: You had a dream abt the IIT before u came here. Your dreams have to be bigger and more beautiful than reality, otherwise, u don't know how to dream. Try to find ppl who share the same viewpoints as u do and do something to ensure that this doesn't happen to your juniors in the future.

Pranesh Srinivasan said...

must agree.. wrenches my heart though to see the best places in india like this... btw, was ur junior at ramaiah...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
rohit said...

Utkarsh here.

You don't see the point in mediocrity, do you? There are more things in this world that you can understand, more things that qualify as art than you can imagine.... My advice is don't close your mind.. and some minds are one-time-closed-all-time-closed... Take care.

mottee said...

no there isnt anything greater to science.. just to break your bubble. Scientist, although have been revered in recent times, the basis of science as against religion is that its something normal people can figure out. Its supposed to be human centric -meaning anyone as a normal human being can deduce the idea.. that someone else speaks of.. explanations that do not require divinations... its humans for humans against nature/god against humans. Thus, the investigation into mathematics as a language to explain phenomena.. and the hypothesis of a computer representing the working of the universe... and further effort to capture natural languages using mathematical tools. Consequently, godel's theorem and poor Wittgenstein in trying to say that mathematics can explain all of life or something like that....
That does not mean that mathematics is the only tool open to science.
Its about the easiest ones..
There is lots of research that cannot readily be helped with mathematics/logic

So the formula that your proff wrote on the board should have made perfect sense to you.. because by now it should be obvious what those symbols stand for..... its the language of science itself.. the fact those symbols are there.. speak for themselves ... and if you are in any way interested you are free to look up how its deduced to that point.. WHY the particular person who figured that out .. really isnt all that necessary is it... because for all you know .. you and he might have come up to the same conclusion in different ways .. its like answering questions.. there are many ways to answer a question .. but usually there arent too many right answers..
In fact its not a good idea to know HOW a particular proof was initially got to if you are really interested in the theorem... because that way you wont be able to practice your own thinking.. and besides... if you are so interested in practicing thinking hard.. try solving some easy open problems .. (ask your proff to give you some .. he will know which ones might be easier --- easier meaning.. soemthing that they have an idea might be solved this way , but have not totally worked that he/she might be able to help you .. with what they know at points you get stuck)

Now, coming to the recent ennui set in research. Earlier, the nummber of people who could or would devote to think hard and long over problems were few.. and the tools were also few... and thus the reverence was greater... and it made sense to treat them differently..Today the scenario is different. The scientific method of thinking is not uncommon. Thinking real hard and problem solving, solving open philosophical and ethical problems are still revered highly.. but its gotten well structured.. better than before.. you can now train students to think hard... you need to practice thinking hard..and normal people .. can also take a shot at it.. and the papers.. as in results or "REAL contributions" to the advancement of an idea is well recognized .. it helps even if its a small contribution... Treat it as .. rewarding individual effort for individual thinking at individual points of time than .. rewarding an individual for just one lone idea at some point of time...
Even today .. solving really open problems.. or identifying a critical problem .. is highly revered as genius..

Hemach said...

Too hyfunda..What's kanupriya's email id??? :D :D

Niranjan Srinivas said...

I had very, very similar feelings in my first year. In fact, to relate a specific incident ::

I remember my air track experiment very clearly (phy101, lab) I was fascinated by it - simply because i had never seen a friction less surface before (well, almost frictionless !)

I mean , one studies so much about the ideal "smooth" surface, and reading that Galileo noticed that the smoother the surface was, the longer the body took to stop, and hence if it was ideally smooth, a body with an initial velocity must go on forever. But to actually SEE it is a different feeling. and of course, the simplicity of the air track idea is also quite awesome.

anyway, i remember looking at that setup with wonder and then being scolded by the instructor and the TA's, who expected me to take 400 readings in 2.5 hrs and get them signed in the last half an hour !

I remember regretting the fact that in a "institute of excellence" like IIT, we seemingly "achieve" a lot of things, but miss out the one thing that made any sort of science, or for that matter, any art, or any mathematics, possible - a sense of wonder.

tejaswi said...

@ mottee -

I do not know who you are. It makes my task of formulating my response to your long comment more interesting.
First things first - In this post, I was not advocating the Hilbert way of axiomatizing all of science (though that would be interesting...) Also I dont think your long monologue in the first paragraph deals with my source of frustration. I don't know what point you were trying to contradict me on in the first post - I think that whatever research is going on at IITK can be safely put under the category of mathematically representable research (I was not talking about the so-called "exotic" research...) As an example, there is a lot of "non-mathematical" stuff in QM and its Philosophy, but the ineptness I was talking about is on a lower plane - The lack of mathematical skill comes about in very conventional "chemistry" presentations of eigenvectors and eigenvalues by our Prof.
I think there must be no confusion on the part of that elementary formula. I know and knew it long back and whatever story one might think abt it. My problem was with the presentation. It's like trying to build a research career from reading "fiitjee" handouts. Yes, we can build up our conception, like Ramanujan did by reading "Carr's Synopsis", a compendium of results. But we are in a University. When we have access to Professors, why cant we leave the "getting to know formulae" to the library, and make the classes a more intellectual experience"? It's not about the little drama played out on that day regarding that little obvious formula. My anger was directed at what the teaching was a symptom of.
Well, the thinking about open problems is there, and will be there as a continuous process, through projects and stuff.
As regards the ennui you talked about, I don't know really. All I can say is that I dont what to be one of those "normal people who have a shot at it". There are plenty of people like me, so why are we being taught from such a perspective?

@ Utkarsh -

"point in mediocrity"... I dont know, though I hate Ayn Rand's works as literature, I think she has a thing or two to say to you about this.

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candyman said...

NIce one..I concur with you on large portions of your post,. esp bout the presentation skills of the profs, their fetish for formulae and the lack of a logical approach when dealing with multidisciplinay topics. An example that comes to mind was CY101 in first sem that dealt with QM and used Vector algebra, Legendre and Bessel equations...topics we just didn't know. The prof spent most of the course convincing us to simply "mug" the formulae and that we'd be taught the math parts later on. Little did I know then, that "later on" meant "in third sem"!!! The point that I dont concur, is your rather harsh treatment of "Stairway to heaven", though I must say, the Sutta song sucks big time.

tejaswi said...

well... I was praising Stairway to Heaven....

Vibhanshu Abhishek 3.1 said...

Interesting post of yours. Even I remember dragging myself to Dr. Dogra's lectures in my first semester and falling asleep in the first 1o minutes. A word of advice though, don't judge you experience at IITK but a couple of first year courses.

You'll come across lots of professors who are not good at teaching but are extremely good researchers. Should they teach first year courses, which even they are not interested in taking up? I don't think so, but paucity of professors does not give them this liberty. You can learn a lot from them but you need to apply yourself, you gotta push yourself into their office and drag yourself to the library.

My personal experience with "IITians" was terrible in the first 1.5 years, some of them are not motivated enough, but if you look closely you'll find tremendous potential. Learn how to tap that and u have a 40 year career ahead of you. Make some good friends, you WILL find people who match your taste and calibre. Trust me everyone has a "baap" even the pgm.

IIT Kanpur in particular is a lovely place. Dont crib, change things you dont like. Learn a lot. Make friends. And learn to fly :) It can change your life.

Best of luck.

Pramod Mudrakarta said...

Apart from the main message, this post highlights many decomposed aspects of the IITs(IITB for sure,at least:D).
I would like you to comment on those, that is, only if you have been tormented enough to write about them in your blog.

A very wonderful post btw.

Skartik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Skartik said...

Hi Panji.I also graduated about the same time from IITk as you have (1 yr earlier due to my 4 yr course)but today is when i have read your post and have found it contemplating a similar viewpoint as mine. I totally agree with you and in fact, I too came with dreams of becoming a researcher but became disinclined towards academics due to the reasons you have already stated in your blog. I do not know if I would be able to become a researcher now but I expect from people like you to change the scenario of research and education in India.
(Although, I haven't experienced foreign education but In India, I believe education and degree carry entirely different meaning).

Kartik Srivastava

Skartik said...

I read someone named motte's post above and I couldn't stop myself from replying.@Motte. It is smart, yet demotivated/aimless people who are the reason for the mess in our education system. Keeping aside the illogical philosophical introduction you gave for the carried practices, I would come to the point. If professor is only meant to write some formulas without any historical/logical background then why at all are the lectures are needed? Professor can always mail the lecture notes or assign the study material and students can cram the data in their mind. Lectures are needed so as to deliver what students cannot, otherwise get from the texts which is a complete picture of a theory and interactive discussions.This indeed is vital to learning science or rather I would say, understanding science.
You mentioned that the system is training the people to think hard; well! I repudiate this completely. In fact, now people are trained to think less and aimlessly develop the application of a theory as a skill. Yes, I agree with you that solvers of important problems are still revered high, but the point is that, due to the stupidity of our education, very few are left to actually make a sincere effort towards the problems. Most of the sharp minds are toned to think like a donkey by our education system.