2017 will be a great year for India and the World!

I can’t think of any situation in which we can be hopeless! I am certain that 2017 is going to be a great year for the world. Let me wish everyone a happy, healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2017!

As I start writing this blog at 22:18 hours on 31 December 2016, we await in India the beginning of 2017. Australia and New Zealand would have welcomed 2017 already and tomorrow morning, every hour we can watch the new year being welcomed in different parts of the world, sitting in front of our TV. And apparently, astronomers have decided to add a leap second to 2016 and so everyone will have to wait for another second to welcome 2017!

The result of USA/UK elections and the war in Syria, among other things have led the New York Times to dub the 2016 as the worst year ever (1).  Anyone who knows the World history to some extent will know this just can’t be true. Demonitization in India has affected every one and our former Prime  Minister Manmohan Singh has called it a monumental blunder. Unlike what the current Prime Minister Modi had mentioned some time ago, even after 50 days, the situation is far from normal. India has not only survived the monumental blunder (according to Manmohan Singh), we have survived seven decades of misrule by Congress (according to Modi). Modi was pleased to join ISRO as soon as he took over to watch the Mangalyaan launch and witnessed India becoming the first nation to reach Mars in its very first attempt. This is not the only positive outcome of seven decades of misrule! I had written a few blogs pointing out how India has risen in every field (2) and also coauthored articles on India’s growth in Chemistry (3) and Chemical Education (4).

Clearly Modi’s description of India in the first seven decades after Independence and Manmohan Singh’s description of demonitization  are just their opinions. I can’t believe that some are trying to point out the lack of violent protest as evidence that people are not suffering. Indians are by nature peace loving and they have survived much worse conditions. Last year’s flood in Chennai is a great example. People’s power was at work and it seemed they were lot more effective than the Government in relief work. India is too big a country for any monumental failure by even a Prime Minister to cause irreparable damage.

On 9th November, the day after demonitization, I had to send a parcel by courier and needed Rs 650. I had several thousand rupees with me in invalid currency but only Rs 400 with me. Though the courier company had a credit card machine for long, it was not working that day. When I told the lady in the counter that the parcel had to be sent urgently, she took it and told me that I could pay later when I have cash! I then went to a store to buy some malt and snacks. The bill was about Rs 1300 and luckily the card machine was working.  I asked the person who was running the store if he was facing any problem due to demonitization. His immediate response was that we should support our PM in this bold decision, though we will have some temporary problems. He said we need to do something about corruption. Then he gave me a bill for half the items I bought and added the other half in the back side of the bill and totalled it. When I asked him, why he was not adding all the items in the bill he said ‘they are different sir’. He was keen on supporting the bold initiative by the PM to root out black money :-). I thought I might use his patriotism and asked him if he would charge my card for a few more hundred and give me some cash. He obliged! I paid for the courier charges. Next evening our neighborhood fruit vendor took old rupee note and gave me fruit.

Whether it is seven decades of misrule or the monumental blunder, Indians know how to live. We have had no revolution yet and we are unlikely to have it either. Every election India votes and no one can take our voters for granted. They voted out Indira Gandhi after Emergency and Vajpayee after the ‘India shining campaign’ that was perceived to be ugly. If demonitization becomes a monumental failure, voters will speak loud in the next election. Congress was routed in 2014 Parliament elections and BJP was routed in Delhi and Bihar state elections. Indian electorate is decisive.

When the electorate in the largest democracy in the world are decisive, can we expect the electorate in the oldest democracy to be less wise? USA has elected Donald Trump and it is only fair that he is given a chance to run the USA for 4 years.

Whether it is God or Nature, the world is too big and there is enough in the world for everyone’s need as pointed out by the Mahatma Gandhi. He also pointed out that the world does not have enough for anyone’s greed. Incompetence, jealousy and greed have been serious sources of problems in society and country and it seems like they have been around  as long as there have been humans. I don’t see them vanishing and our troubles will continue. Whether it is Thirukkural in Tamil or a proverb from Africa, you can see scholars have been pointing out the dangers of these human traits. As Bharadwaj Rangan has beautifully written in a movie review “the acts we consider inhuman are born from the most basic human emotions” (5).

We have been using a daily sheet calendar in Tamil, popularly called Vivekananda Calendar. Everyday, it lists out the important events from all over the world. I note that January first is listed as the World Family Day and World Peace Day.   Again, whether it is God or Nature, it is great to have men and women, and it is clearly impossible not to have them both. As long as there are women in the world, I am convinced that the ‘family’ will survive and that will ensure that peace will prevail too! Stay positive and do what you can to make 2017 a great year!

 

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/28/opinion/2016-worst-year-ever.html?_r=0
  2. https://earunan.org/2015/01/03/indian-science-catch-up-with-india-then-worry-about-china/ This blog discusses the growth of India in various fields and points out that Indian science has not grown as much.
  3. E. Arunan, R. Brakaspathy, G. R. Desiraju, S. Sivaram, Chemistry in India, Angew. Chemie Int. Ed. Engl. 2013, 51.This article discusses the growth of Chemistry in India. 
  4. Mangala Sunder Krishnan, R. Brakaspathy and E. Arunan Chemical Education in India: Addressing Current Challenges and Optimizing Opportunities J. Chem. Educ. 2016.
  5. http://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/Dhuruvangal-Pathinaaru-A-matter-of-crime/article16964857.ece
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Science and Religion (humanity!): Gravity and Love

Some of the recent happenings, which influenced me significantly, led me to think about gravity and love. While I cannot mention all those things in this blog, I should point out two. One is the last blog I wrote about the borders in Science and Nations (1). Many have discussed about the border between Science and Religion. Another is a recent article published in the Journal Judgment and Decision Making titled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound b—s— . (2)

I am almost convinced that many would have compared gravity and love and I am writing this blog without doing a Google search on these words together or a search in science or philosophical Journals. So this is my views, not influenced by others as yet. I started thinking about this analogy when I saw the authoritative article on pseudo-profund b—s—. I am reproducing one statement from the abstract:  “Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge b—s— statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief)”. Now you see why I thought of religion. This article appears to be an empirical study to understand why some people believe in statements that clearly appear to be ‘b—s—‘ to a Scientist or perhaps, a rationalist. Such empirical studies are accepted as good scientific procedures! The authors point out that “Despite these seemingly commonplace observations, we know of no psychological research on b—s—.” Such justifications are important for a scientific investigation on any problem.

Though all of us know gravity, we still do not know how gravity works. For example, if we have to take a mango (let me use a fruit that is native to where we live) from a tree, you can get a really long rod or tie together small rods with ropes, and tie a scythe at the end. Have a ladder or stool or go to the rooftop. Use this rod to reach the mango and cut it off from the branch by using the scythe. I have seen my father in law doing it in their house many times. Once the  mango is cutoff from the branch, it falls down. Gravity has helped us now. Mango was bound to the branch physically and a scythe was used to cutoff the link. Why does the mango fall down and not stay where it was or go up, when it’s link is cutoff! Of course, we all know it is due to gravity now.

We know electric and magnetic fields and we know that the opposite charges (poles) attract and like charges (poles) repel. Most students in physics may have done some experiments to look at the line of forces acting on magnetic materials. How does the earth pull the mango down? There are some speculations about ‘gravitons‘ which are hypothetical elementary particles that mediate the force of gravity. The wikipedia page on graviton looks reasonable (3). Basically we have a rope made of gravitons, that we cannot see, and it has pulled the mango down. Beyond this invisible gravitons, we know how gravity works. We can do experiments, make predictions, others can repeat our experiments and we all come to the same conclusions. Though, ‘graviton‘ cannot be seen, gravity is science!

Now let us look at how two people are attracted. We say they are in ‘love’ with each other. May be some one has done an empirical study, like the study on b—s— and come to conclusions about which two individuals may fall in love. I am not aware of them.’Love at first sight’ is a phrase commonly used. It is there from our Ramayanam (for Tamils, Ramayana for others) and the great poet Kamban says ‘அண்ணலும் நோக்கினார்  அவளும் நோக்கினாள்’ (‘annalum nokkinaar avalum nokkinaal’ which translates to ‘Rama looked at Sita and Sita looked at Rama at the same time). They fell in love and we have an epic. Do we have ‘lovons‘ that was mediating between Rama and Sita? Though they both fell in love, their marriage happens after Rama wins her in a contest and it was arranged.

I come from a background in which arranged marriage is still common and ‘love’ starts post marriage and it has worked very well for the most part. From the day of marriage, husband and wife live together and ‘love’ or affinity develops over a period of time. As I knew this would be the case in my life, and I really didn’t want to challenge this practice, I have somehow ensured that I would not possess any ‘lovons‘ or in case a girl were to send ‘lovons‘ to me, I would be transparent. It seems like, this attractive force of ‘love’ which could operate through the ‘imaginary particle lovon‘ can be controlled by humans, who have been conditioned to grow in a certain way. I do realize that, irrespective of the surroundings, some individuals can transmit and receive ‘lovons‘ and when they say they are in ‘love’, we cannot ask them to prove it. We have to accept it. I am not aware of any experiments that can be done to measure the ‘forces’ operating between them.

As with gravity, love is also attractive. If we have only attractive forces, it will be fatal and I am sure, many would have heard this term ‘fatal attraction’. When the mango falls down due to gravity, it will be crushed. We need to counter it with some repulsive forces, such as a cushioned bag, to collect the mango when it falls so that mango is not hurt and then taste the king of fruit. Even as I write, my love for mango is kindling my emotions and my mouth started watering. My love for mango started working. The gravitational force between earth and moon is balanced by the centrifugal force as they revolve around themselves and also the sun, resulting in a stable orbit. Between two people who are attracted by love, there has to be a ‘repulsive force’, one can see this as the space required for the individuals to exist independently, for a stable relationship. If this space is not provided, ‘love’ would not be enough to hold them together.

This article on ‘profound b—s—‘ concludes that those who are religious tend to accept ‘profound b—s—‘ more readily than others. Every religion promotes love. I come from a ‘shaivite’ family (people worshiping Shiva’ and we say ‘அன்பே சிவம்’ (anbae sivam, which means Shiva is nothing but love’) Christ said ‘love thy neighbour’. I am not sure if scientists will ever be able to explain the forces of ‘love’. That is for philosophers, I suppose. If only we can find ways to promote love, world will be a great place. We may never be able to discover ‘lovons‘ but we know love is real, may be not scientific. We may or may not be able to discover ‘gravitons‘ but we know gravity is real and scientific.

Perhaps we should stop comparing science and religion. Perhaps we should start giving equal emphasis for science and social science in schools and colleges. Without a doubt, religion has been used to exploit people and and kill each other as well. Religion does not encourage questioning and science does. Faith by definition cannot be questioned. Science starts by questioning what we observe. Ideally religion should promote love and science could be indifferent to this. Did Einstein say “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind’? (4) I have also heard people saying ‘love is blind’.

  1. https://earunan.org/2016/09/20/borders-in-science-and-nation-the-need-for-them-and-the-need-to-have-a-healthy-disrespect-for-them/ Accessed on 24 September 2016.
  2. http://journal.sjdm.org/15/15923a/jdm15923a.html Accessed 24 September 2016
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graviton Accessed 24 September 2016.
  4. 4. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins161289.html Accessed on 24 September 2016

 

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Borders in Science and Nation: The need for them and the need to have a healthy disrespect for them!

Tamil is an ancient language that has been around for several millennia. Several philosophers have written poetry, which are very old, but their content remains applicable for all the times. One such poem was written by Kanian Poongundranaar during the Tamil Sangam (which are perhaps comparable to Academic Societies today) period, which started around 300 BC (1). This poem starts as: யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் (Yaadhum Oorae, yaavarum kaelir), loosely translated as “All towns are the same and all people are our kin”. This is depicted in the United Nations Organization for the profound truth it conveys (2). The translation given in the Wikipedia page quoted says ‘all men are our kin’. This is incorrect and ‘all are our kin’ is the right translation. He did not envision any borders between towns!

I have written earlier about how I became a physical chemist, bordering physics and chemistry. I have been in the editorial advisory board of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP), a Journal published by the Owner societies. The title of the Journal implies that the border between physics and chemistry are thin and either can be the first or last name, for the sub-discipline. More importantly, this Journal showed how borders between the nation-states of Europe had become thin. This Journal combined several favorite Journals in physical chemistry published in various nations in the UK and Europe (among them were two Journals named after two of the greatest scientists of all time, Faraday and Bunsen, Faraday Discussion, published in UK and ‘Berichte der Bunsengesellschaft für physikalische Chemie‘ published in German). PCCP has established itself as one of the leading Journals in this area. Brexit may have happened but I am confident that PCCP will continue, at least, for my lifetime. It is published by the Owner Societies, which has many of the European Chemical Societies as its members. A few years ago, Chemistry, an Asian Journal came into existence as well.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember learning that chemistry is a study of matter and physics is a study of energy. Of course, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2 was already known having energy on the left hand side and matter (it’s mass) on the right hand side. One can translate this equation as physics = chemistry. However, still physics and chemistry as individual and independent disciplines exist and it may continue to exist. One subtle difference, that would be lost in this generalization is that chemists worry more about how atoms combine to form molecules or liquids or solids. They worry about the interactions between them and how they transform from one to another. Study of making and breaking bonds between atoms is indeed chemistry. Though atomic physics exists, there is no atomic chemistry. Atoms have to join together for chemistry!

Science, as a pursuit of understanding nature really cannot have a border. However, it is important to have disciplines and sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines and for individual researchers, focus on one specific problem in a narrow sub-discipline is needed. Divide and conquer works. One soon realizes that even to solve a specific problem in Science, it is important to have contributions from many disciplines. Again, taking a personal example, we have established experimental laboratories in India, where we can make the weakest bond, even between inert gases such as argon and neon and study them with a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer. We can also break the strongest bond, the triple bond between two N atoms in N2, in a single pulse shock tube. In both laboratories, building the experimental facilities involved knowledge of mechanical engineering, electronics and communication engineering, vacuum techniques, physics, chemistry and, of course, maths. One lifetime is not enough to learn all these thoroughly but even to talk to experts in all these area one needs to understand these subjects to some extent. It is important to collaborate and that involves mutual trust and respect. Learning all these subjects is not trivial and may require different skills one person may not be able to acquire. None of this skills are more important than others.

We have had humans on this earth for 200,000 years or more.  Currently, we have more than 7 billion people on our earth and they are distributed in about 250+ countries. We started living in caves, feeling secure and hunting animals, migrated to plains, started farming, developed languages to communicate with each other and started developing codes  of conduct so that we can all coexist. We really had no choice about whether to exist, but having come in to this world, we had to find ways to coexist. Religion was found and religious texts prescribed rules for life. Eventually, over the last few hundred years, the nation-state model has started working well. Most nations are democratic and they have a constitution to guide them with elected representatives who have a fixed term.

Given the size of this world, it is not practical to be governed by one ruler or executive and so we have many countries, which are divided in to states, which are divided into districts, and so on. And we have the United Nations. Any conflict in smaller entities is resolved by discussion and arbitration, with mutually agreed rules. While these borders are needed for practical purposes, as the borders in Science, we need to realize that these are arbitrary and came in to existence rather recently. As much as a chemist has no reason to hate a physicist, I don’t see any reason for a person from one district or state or country to hate another one from a different district or state or country. One could add, language and religion as well, which are drawing borders between people. As it is true in the border areas of science, one can note that in the borders drawn based on language, religion, state, nations etc… there is really no big difference between the two sides.

Those from India now are worried about two things as a nation. Tension in the borders between India and Pakistan and the tension in the borders between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When we realize that the senior leader of the ruling party BJP, Advani was born in what is Pakistan today, one can get a different perspective. Hosur, a small town in Tamil Nadu, bordering Karnataka, has it’s name in Kannada (Hosur in Kannada means new town). I have been to temples 60 km north of Bangalore (Yoganarasimha temple), where I saw the statues of 13 Aalwargal (Vaishnavite saints, following Vishnu as their God) who wrote poems in Tamil. Clearly the borders have been drawn recently. If we use them for any reason other than administrative simplicity. we will have problems.

Scientists know the importance of collaboration. Again, taking an example from a field that has excited me i.e. the hydrogen bond, one of the most important paper was published recently in Science, from China through a collaboration between physicists and chemists (3). They could see ‘the hydrogen bond’, when seeing atoms and molecules were thought to be impossible, not so long ago! Readers having no access to Science, may not be able to read it and anyone interested is welcome to read a commentary I wrote in Current Science, which is available online with free access (4). Naturally, when people from across the borders work together, they can achieve lot more than what is possible when they work independently. However, not only in Science, but also in human relations, mutual trust and respect are important. When that is lost, there will be tension,war, destruction …. Sooner or later, people realize that, it is better to develop mutual trust and respect and find ways to coexist.

I recommend an autobiograpy written by Prof. Curt Wittig from the University of Southern California (5). It is long but worth reading. A part of this was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry A in a Festchrift in his honor a few years ago. He has done some beautiful experiments in physical chemistry that helped in understanding the microscopic details of how chemical reactions happen. From his autobiography, one can learn a few things about the nations and their borders in Europe. The city in which he was born kept changing hands to different countries. His experiences in the Chicago southern neighborhood is unbelievable. It also shows that where you started in life hardly matters. Given the right opportunities, you can excel in your career and life.

In closing, let me reiterate: One should not take any of the borders too seriously, if one is interested in real progress. In the references below, two are to Wikipedia pages and they have to be understood as unauthenticated information.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_period Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaniyan_Pungundranar Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  3. J. Zhang, P. Chen, B. Yuan, W. Ji, Z. Cheng, X. Qiu, Science,Vol. 342, Issue 6158, pp. 611-614 2013. Link: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6158/611
  4. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. VOL. 105, NO. 7, pp 892-894.  Link: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/105/07/0892.pdf
  5. C. Wittig autobiography, longer version available at http://www.curtwittig.com/wp-content/uploads/curt-wittig-autobio.pdf
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RTE and NPS: Honesty/integrity doesn’t pay enough for many in India, yet!

Warren Buffet said: Honesty is a very expensive gift, don’t expect it from cheap people. One would think, honesty would become more common if one is from a wealthy nation. The reports I read about Donald Trump indicates that material wealth may not be enough to ensure honesty. One needs a wealth of character.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur campus has a Kendriya Vidyala Higher Secondary School to cater to the children of its faculty and staff. Around 1996, the school administration dropped a bomb on many students and their family. The students were informed that they had to be born before a certain date in order to appear for the higher secondary exam (+2) when they come to that level. This was a new rule introduced at that time and it was enforced retrospectively. Several students had been admitted in the past when they were younger and would not satisfy this new criterion when they enter their school final year. Many students were affected. The parents were given a choice. They could produce an affidavit that would show that their kids were older and so they could write the exam when they reach the final year. If not, the kids will have to stay back in the same class for one more year! Among the many faculty members facing this tough choice, only one chose honesty and integrity. Everyone else found a way to get an affidavit. That bright girl, unlucky daughter of an honest father, who had not learned that integrity doesn’t pay, stayed back in the same class with her juniors. It must have been a tough time to repeat the same courses because the rules were changed in between! She had done well eventually getting a Ph. D. from the USA. I have not known or followed the lives of the other kids who had smarter parents. I can only speculate that they had learned what is more important in life and continued to progress.

India enacted two laws recently. Right to Information (RTI) and Right to Education (RTE). As with any rules and laws, there are always two sides, may be more than two. Both laws have a holistic objective. RTI can ensure that every one has access to information. Political parties and the BCCI (Board of control of cricket in India) continue to claim that the RTI rules don’t apply to them. The RTE was enacted to give opportunities for poor kids to get education from the best of school. There have been so much written about both these and this blog is not about the pros and cons of these acts. It is about honesty and integrity.

Recently, the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) has canceled affiliation for one of the most reputed schools, the National Public School. Some are outraged by this and clearly hundreds of students would be affected. Why did the CBSE take this step? NPS is accused of forging documents to evade law! They are convinced that the RTE act is wrong. Hence, they seem to have decided that forging documents is acceptable for them.If a reputed school can choose to break the law, when it is convinced the law is wrong, what will the students do in life? What would the students of the Kendriya Vidyalaya who got ahead by submitting a false affidavit do in the future? Is it alright to forge a document or lie to get ahead in life? Where does it stop?

In a country or society in which the rich and powerful do not follow the rules, one cannot expect the poor and marginalized to follow the rules either. If NPS can do dishonest things because it is convinced that the law of the land is wrong, why should not a poor person who comes from a section that has been historically marginalized for long, break a law that (s)he does not approve?

This I find to be a serious problem in India. Everyone feels deprived and I have heard it from the leaders in science and politics. As they have been deprived in the past, it is alright to be a little dishonest. It is alright to cut corners, bend or break the rules, forge a signature, alter a document. Is it any wonder, corruption has become prevalent?

India is not unique in having a troubled past. Every country and society have gone through similar history. I remember reading an Italian scientist’s autobiographical review in which he points out that nepotism and favoritism ruled the institutions there in the 60s. I remember reading another such review by a Professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who mentions about his mother who was expected to be a house wife as that was what women were expected to do. As we develop in to a modern nation, we have a constitution and rule of law. If we do not like something, we need to convince our representatives, our people and bring in changes. If we choose not to obey the law of the land, what kind of an example are we setting for our citizens? If I can break a law that I don’t like, do I have any right to stop another person from breaking a law that (s)he doesn’t like!

When can we say, honesty and integrity are essential in life and if someone follows them, they can be assured of growth and a dignified life? If we can say that, we would have become a really developed nation!

 

 

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Silence of the Lambs!

It is 25 years since the classic movie ‘Silence of the lambs’ was released on the Valentine’s day in 1991 (1). I was in the USA at that time but do not remember the release. I had not seen the movie until a few years ago. What a powerful movie. This blog is not about the movie, though. It is about the title. What can a lamb do other than silently putting up with the atrocities committed on it? I have seen in some temples where they sacrifice Lambs for the Gods. Of course, it is always for the devotees to consume and not really for the Gods. Some one will pour some water with turmeric on the Lamb’s head and when it shakes the head, people will shout to the man holding the scythe! ‘Lamb has accepted and you can chop of the head’

I did see The Revenant when it released recently in Bangalore. In the  movie, Fritzgerald (Hardy) kills Gloss’s son and tries to kill Gloss (Dicaprio). He lies to the young Bridger (Poulter) and forces him to leave Gloss to death and accompany him to safety. Bridger finds out the truth and is angry with Fritzgerald for lying to him but is forced to return. On reaching the settlement, Fritzgerald tells Captain Henry (Glessen) that Gloss died and he has been given a decent burial. Bridger is sitting next to him and is unable to speak the truth. I remembered the silence of the lambs.

I wonder if each one of us would have had this experience. Keeping silent when some one powerful lies blatantly. I have experienced. Typically, one does not expect the person who is a lot more powerful to lie blatantly. When the lie comes all of a sudden, the weaker person can not speak up for various reasons. It could be fear, politeness, avoiding open confrontation… Many holding power enjoy such silence and exploit it. I was listening to someone who was blatantly taking all the credit in public for the work I had done without blinking. I did not respond and felt sad. I could only pity the person who was confidently lying.

While growing up, one may have such experiences. It may be  prudent to ignore and continue ones work. Speaking up and resisting too soon could be counterproductive. Person holding power has a lot more voice. One can only hope the silence does not end up becoming fatal as in the case of the lambs. Apparently, if the lamb does not shake its head, it’s head cannot be chopped off! Lamb cannot but shake its head when water is poured on it and clearly the lamb does not have much choice. Perhaps humans are better off.

Today (13th March 2016), NDTV had She the People instead of We the People. Burkha Dutt was talking to prominent ladies including Melinda Gates and Kalki Koechlin. Sexual harassment was one of the topic and the show announced that 90 % of the women in India suffer. It is difficult for me to believe this number but certainly it is prevalent. I was reminded of the movie Highway, which I got to watch in a flight. A young girl who has been harassed is forced to be silent, not only by the perpetrator but also by the mother. Sshh, don’t say a word! It is not just women. Twelve years a slave was another powerful movie depicting the lives of African American slaves in the USA during the 19th century. During those days, the slaves had no voice. Their complaints won’t be registered. Courts will not listen to them. I was reminded of the murder of Mooka Nadar who dared to enter the Meenakshi Temple. Court acquitted the murderers (2). Those with power would like to keep everyone silent and exploit their power. Democracy has indeed given some voice to everyone. I am glad Indian democracy started with every adult having a vote. Your vote is your voice. It is important to speak up.

  1. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/silence-of-the-lambs-at-25-the-complete-buffalo-bill-story-20160214?page=2
  2. https://earunan.org/2015/02/01/rosa-parks-and-mooka-nadar-recent-tales-from-the-worlds-oldest-and-largest-democracies/
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Equal rights for one and all: Some experiences from the USA and India.

In the year 2000, when I was on a short visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an American lady asked me suddenly. Why do Indians kill girl babies? I know there have been stray cases reported and didn’t like this generalization. My immediate response to her was that we were parents of two healthy daughters. A friend of mine, who was standing by came up with a better answer: In a country of 1 billion, one can find all kinds of people. However, the declining sex ratio led our Prime Minister Modi to announce a program to save girls and educate them as well, so that their dependence is not exploited (1).

American Chemical Society has instituted an award for encouraging women in to careers in Chemical Sciences (2). Department of Science and Technology, India, has some specific funds for encouraging women as well. I have heard about positions in the US Universities reserved for women. Some might wonder, should I take this position? Would it make me less deserved? It is not uncommon, even in the developed nations, to find men talking to working women in a patronizing tone. At times they offer unsolicited comments suggesting that a female colleague got the job mainly because of the gender. I think the women should reply to such comments with a straight face: Are you feeling insecure?

Oscar awards for 2016 were given recently.  Some black actors decided to boycott as there were no black nominees in all the four acting category for two years in a row. Of course, awards are to be given based on performance and not color, isn’t it? However, almost all the nominators are white and there was a perceived bias. Chris Rock, a black comedian, hosted the show. His opening act and comments won wide appreciation. It was funny mostly and touchy at times. I am copying from one part of his speech (3).

:”Why are we protesting this oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole ‘no black nominees’ thing has happened at least 71 other times.” He said black people didn’t protest before because they had “real things to protest at the time. They were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who wins best cinematographer.”:

Another thing Chris told in his monologue answers the doubt some women might have accepting jobs reserved for them. Some had suggested that he should boycott Oscar award ceremony and he responded: And the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart

We, in India, are all supposed to be one race and so there cannot be any ‘racial’ discrimination. However, we have discrimination based on pretty much everything else: gender, color, caste, region, religion, language, you name it. There has been a plan to reserve 33 % of the Parliament seats to women for long. The ratio of women in academic positions in research institutes is still low. Recently, the Indian Academy of Sciences brought out a book titled “Leelavathi’s daughters” discussing about women in Science in India. My own Department had 3 women, out of 25, in its faculty two decades ago and since then none. We have recently appointed a woman after two decades. It was amusing to read a recent news about what a high school text book says in Chattissgarh, a State in india. Women are one of the causes for unemployment! (4). Notwithstanding such text book comments, the Government of India, funding organizations, various Institutions and Universities are coming up with various programmes to correct this anomaly.

The only thing about caste system that no can deny is that it is real and it exists today. It is unlikely to have been a British conspiracy to keep India divided but they may have very well exploited all these differences.  India has a number of castes grouped under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and the name they  have, changes with every state/language. People from these castes have been historically marginalized and were considered ‘untouchables’ by the other caste Hindus, though their service was taken by force. Dalit, meaning ‘oppressed’ has become one word to group them all, though I have read some recent reports which point out that people belonging to similar castes in some states do not prefer this name. This term was perhaps popularized by the architect of the Indian Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, who himself belonged to this caste. Clearly, with the choice of Ambedkar as the Author of our Constitution, one can see that India has been trying hard to amend the differences. He was not chosen because of the background but because of his capability.

As an independent country, India decided that dalits should be given some reserved seats in academic institutions and Government jobs. Over two generations, this had helped many of them improve their social and financial status. In 2012, I found and pointed out in an article I wrote in Current Science(5) that the cutoff marks for admission to MBBS in Tamil Nadu for General quota and SC/ST were both above 190/200.  However, even now a large section of them remain socially and financially backwards. This is due to various factors including the reservation being exploited by the same families that have gained earlier. There have been reasonable requests for the criterion for reservation to include economic status.

Dalits had different way of lives compared to caste Hindus including their food preferences which includes beef. They constitute perhaps 1/4th of the ‘Hindu’ population in India. Of course, most Hindus had beef in ancient times and stopped consuming it in later periods. I know of many Hindu friends coming from various castes, who eat beef even today. Several, but not all, Indian states have banned Cow slaughter and consumption of Cow meat, also called beef. Some Hindus worship cow as it gives milk. Buffalo meat, also beef, was not banned. One might say this is the result of inherent color discrimination. Anything fair is lovely! Though, these laws have been there for long, eating beef has become a  major source of controversy recently attracting world wide attention on India. Some students organizations have protested this and they have been called anti-national time and again.

Let me point out a few incidents recently. In University of Hyderabad, a dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide. He was earlier suspended for anti-national activities. This is what his mother had to say: The day after, at the mortuary of Osmania Hospital, Rohith’s mother cried out: “I used to proudly tell everyone in my village that my son was doing PhD at Hyderabad University. Today, I have come to collect his dead body.’’(6) She lamented: What took me 26 years to rise has been destroyed in a few months.  Among the anti-national activities he committed were being part of the Ambedkar Students Association and organizing a beef festival and a function about hanging Afzal Guru, who was sentenced to death for planning the attack on the Indian Parliament. He was accused of being a ‘casteist, extremist and (indulging in) anti-national politics’, quoting from a letter forwarded by a central minister to the Ministry of Human Resources and Development.

Recently, the vice-chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University Mr. Tripathi, is reported to have said: Dr. Pandey was attempting to rake up “controversial and sensitive” issues at the university, such as beef and Kashmir’s ‘independence.’ (7) He had terminated Dr. Pandey for raking up these issues in BHU. I have been wondering how are these issues getting mingled? It is important for the Government and Society to understand how beef and Kashmir are getting connected. I have written a few blogs about Hinduism, religion and conversions and I do not want to repeat them here.

All over the world, it has been abundantly clear that some people holding on to power have abused it for personal benefit. They have managed to ensure that some are more equal than others. Democracy is one answer to such exploitation. What surprises, rather shocks me, is the attitude of some of the Indian elites, who accuse people who have been exploited for generations in the name of caste, as ‘casteist’. I have not heard any reports from the USA (I may be ignorant on this one), calling Chris Rock, anti-national and someone who brought shame on the Country because he spoke some truth when the world was watching. Even Donald Trump does not seem to have mentioned any such things!

In India, there are many, in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, accusing students who organized ‘beef festival’ as anti-national. I note a patronizing tone in their voice as someone who has given to others. ‘What are they still complaining about? They don’t have any sense of gratitude!’ Another aspect that is evident in their comments is insecurity. No one should speak anything about our past, which may look bad now. Unless we realize the fact that no one is giving to others and we are all equal owners of this nation and the world, this mindset will not go. A country cannot ignore the livelihood of a significant fraction of its people. Nor can it ignore the injustice of the past and make amends. It cannot be done by shutting down people who speak. It has never worked!

References (all websites accessed in early March 2016):

  1. http://wcd.nic.in/BBBPScheme/main.htm
  2. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/funding-and-awards/awards/national/bytopic/acs-award-for-encouraging-women-into-careers-in-the-chemical-sciences.html
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/oscars/12175247/chris-rock-academy-awards-oscars-jokes-monologue.html
  4. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Working-women-cause-of-unemployment-says-Chhattisgarh-school-textbook/articleshow/49065145.cms?utm_source=fb&utm_campaign=toimobile&utm_medium=referral
  5. E. Arunan, Current Science, 107, 555-556 (2014)
  6. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/behind-dalit-student-suicide-how-his-university-campus-showed-him-the-door/#sthash.lyMCTSDB.dpuf.
  7. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/have-prevented-bhu-from-going-the-jnu-way-tripathi/article8306076.ece?homepage=true
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Early education and summer projects! Life is a marathon and not a 100 m race.

There has been so much written about our school/college education in India that there may not be much to add now. However, a recent incident in a college, where I was invited for a discussion among some parents and teachers, has motivated me to share some views. It has been further fueled by two advertisements I saw in The Hindu recently!

One of the parents in the meeting was visibly worried as her daughter was not selected for any summer research programme. She was under the impression that without such summer experience, the student would not be able to progress in life and all was doomed already! I was a student applying for a summer fellowship in 1983. I have been in a committee to select summer fellows for more than 6 years, 3 years as the Chairman. I had the privilege of seeing both sides.

When I was completing my I year MSc in IIT Madras (as it was called those days), we had an accelerated II semester as there was water scarcity. A far cry from the recent floods in Chennai. IIT Madras decided to complete the semester in 3 months instead of typical 4 months and send students home for 3 months instead of the typical two month vacation. I had a break of 100 days, never before and never after, since I started going to school. It would have been a good time to do a summer project. TIFR was one place that had summer research fellowship those days and it was not common anywhere including IIT Madras.

I had to write a statement of purpose (SOP). I started with this sentence: “When I finished my pre-University, I had to join BSc in Chemistry”. I had my school education in Tamil and was not very fluent in English. I asked a friend of mine who was educated in Kendriya Vidyalaya in English medium to go through my SOP and let me know if it was reading well. He had one comment: ‘Do you want to say you loved Chemistry so much, you had to join BSc Chemistry? The way you have written, it could mean you had no other choice!”. I told him the second option was correct and I did mean what the sentence meant (See footnote 1)

Honesty doesn’t pay, does it! More importantly, I was somewhere in the middle in my class and TIFR had chosen the top 2 students for the summer project! I perhaps had the best 100 days in my life. I was roaming around freely, attended all the family functions, watched movies, traveled… It was fun. I didn’t get to do a summer project and it did not seem to have mattered in the end.

When I point this out, almost everyone would say ‘it is different today, there is more competition’. There is some truth in it. Often for summer fellowship, 10000 students may apply and 200 may be selected. What all the students should realize is that, the students who could not get selected are in no way inferior. They can still try to find some opportunities elsewhere or just read and discuss with resource persons available   I have always found time to discuss with any student who is interested to learn. I have sent many students to my colleagues and they have done the same too. If you don’t get a summer project, it is not the end. The students still have the best option of just exploring other activities and enjoying life.

Recently, I read about a school in Bangalore for 1 year old children along with the parents. I didn’t want to read what all the child would learn in this school! Then I found another advertisement which was worse. FIITJEE is introducing coaching classes for V standard students. Until recently, they used to start coaching when the students completed their VIII standard. The national entrance exam would happen four years later. Now they are starting at V standard. What is happening to us? Let the children play, observe and learn.

Parents and teachers should realize one thing. Life is not a 100 m race you run when you finish your high school. It is a marathon. While your performances in your high school and BSc do help, they are not enough to guarantee you a successful career. I see many successful scientists in India and the world who were not toppers in their high school. Sundar Pichai is a good example. His teachers could not recollect his days in school.

I did not write this to suggest that the students should not do well in high school or not attend coaching or not do summer projects. Try and do as well as you can. Learn to enjoy what you do so it doesn’t become a burden. Remember, you have to sustain for decades. Do not get burned out.

The first year I taught in IIT Kanpur, one student came to my office. He had very low marks. He asked me: “I was the topper in my school, you have given me low marks. Why?’ I told him that he should answer that question. You could be a state or all India topper in your +2 (higher secondary/pre-University) exams. That cannot give you marks when you write your exams in college or your admission to a graduate school or a job that you seek. You need to sustain for long. Even after 12 years in high school, you would have 10-12 years in College and it is important to sustain. There is not one formula for success. Your path to success could be different from the student who got to do a summer project this year. Never give up!

Footnotes

  1. As my father wanted me to become a real doctor (not a Ph.D.), I had chosen physics, chemistry, and biology in my PUC as only three subjects could be chosen those days. Students wanting to become engineers or scientists chose physics, chemistry and maths! I was really good in Maths during my high school but my father’s wish took me to the biology group. I was not very good in biology and to this day, I had not learned much in biology. Most every scientist has started working on biology irrespective of their back ground. I wanted to get into BSc Maths or physics but that was not allowed as I did not have Maths in my PUC. I had to choose BSc Chemistry and became a physical chemist/chemical physicist eventually.
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