Thursday, February 26, 2015

Amartya Sen's Tenure at Nalanda

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan presents a dim assessment of Sen's Chancellorship at Nalanda: This isn't the first time Nalanda and Amartya Sen have been controversial – it happened during UPA too:

Controversies from the beginning

From the very beginning, the Nalanda project ran into trouble. Conceived as a way of reviving an age-old institution that had once been the world's first university, the project initially garnered lots of interest from East Asian countries with links to India. Parliament passed a law in 2010 to set up the university with the assistance of the Nalanda Mentor Group, which included a number of other nations that were a part of the project, meaning the Ministry of External Affairs rather than the Human Resource Development Ministry was put in charge of what should have been one of India's most important educational institutions.

Even before the act had been signed by the president and notified, however, MEA appeared to have appointed a Vice Chancellor to run the university. [...]

Group Discussion to Select IIT Directors?

Basant Kumar Mohanty reports The Telegraph: Smriti bins IIT heads shortlist:

In May last year, after the results of the national elections were out but no HRD minister had formally taken charge, the ministry had advertised the posts seeking fresh applications.

The NDA government later set up the search panels for scrutinising applications.

The committees invited the applicants for group discussions and decided to video-record the interaction. But some of the applicants found the process embarrassing and later - when called for the interview with the HRD minister - opted out.

The last sentence doesn't surprise me.

The result of this royal botch-up is that the selection of new directors for three IITs (Ropar, Bhubaneswar and Patna) has been set back by months.


  1. Deevy Bishop: Editors behaving badly?. It starts with this (and goes down from there!):

    ... I found that for 32 papers co-authored by Matson in this journal between 2010 and 2014 for which the information was available, the median lag from a paper being received and it being accepted was one day.

  2. Scott Burns in Dallas Morning News: Tortured data will confess to anything. Mentions Uri Simonsohn and p-hacking. And, of course, torture of data.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Pauli's Inferiority Principle

Esther Inglis-Arkell in io9: The Romance That Led To A Legendary Science Burn:

Pauli was not just hurt by the fact that his marriage had come apart - he jokingly referred to being married only in a "loose way" - but by his bride's choice of man. Deppner had left him for a chemist, of all things, and not even a good one. Pauli loudly complained to his friends, "Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood - with such a man I could not compete - but a chemist - such an average chemist!" [Bold emphasis added]

I heard this quote in Prof. George Whitesides's talk titled "Reinventing Chemistry" at IISc two years ago; it's nice to get the back story with names (if you are impatient, go to 28:45 in the video).

Dissonance of the Day

From this story from the UK:

Survey results published by YouGov on 15 February found that only being an author or a librarian was more attractive than a life working in higher education. [So, that's Rank # 3 out of 31 professions.]

A little later in the same story:

According to the Cabinet Office’s career “happiness index”, published last year, “higher education teaching professionals” are the 61st most contented section of the UK workforce of 274 professional areas assessed.


  1. Harvard University press release: Cooperation, considered. "New model reveals how motives can affect cooperation". This is based on an interesting game -- a variation of the cooperation game by adding a twist that conveys some information about the first player's motives to the second player.

  2. Emily Singer in Quanta: Game Theory Calls Cooperation Into Question. "A recent solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, a classic game theory scenario, has created new puzzles in evolutionary biology."

  3. Clive Thompson in Smithsonian: How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked—and Played. A very interesting excerpt about how the US lawmakers viewed "xeroxing":

    “It was really a great moment in the late ’70s when it was a wonderful loosening of copyright,” says Lisa Gitelman, professor of English and media studies at New York University. These days, Congress is working hard­—often at the behest of movie studios or record labels—in the opposite direction, making it harder for people to copy things digitally. But back in the first cultural glow of the Xerox, lawmakers and judges came to the opposite conclusion: Copying was good for society.

IPCC Chief R.K. Pachauri Accused of Sexual Harassment

India Today has excerpts from e-mails and SMSs between a colleague and him, and they are sure to make you go, "Holy **** man, what were you thinking?".

When the allegation surfaced (see also this story), Pachauri claimed that his computer and phone were hacked into. But there is a new allegation by another woman who claims that many other women have also been harassed by Pachauri -- a decade ago.

Despite Pachauri's calling the allegation "a cloud which is causing problems personally", this is not going to end well for the IPCC chief and Padma Vibhushan awardee.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A PhD Glut?

As India's top institutions are being asked to admit, train, and graduate ever larger numbers of PhD scholars, the "overproduction" issue will come back to haunt us quite soon. Neuroskeptic presents a summary of a recent study of this question: Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia by MIT's R.C. Larson, N. Ghaffarzadegan, and Y. Xue.

The main conclusion is that academics are overbreeding PhDs. Here's the relevant plot from the (open access) paper by Larson et al:

Here's Neuroskeptic:

Larson et al. approach this question by borrowing a concept from epidemiology: R0 (R nought), known as the basic reproduction number. In the context of an infectious disease, R0 is the average number of people who are newly infected by the disease by each existing patient. Influenza, for example, has an R0 of about 1.2 – 1.6. If R0 is greater than 1, the disease will spread exponentially.

Larson et al. define the academic R0 as the total number of PhD graduates created by (supervised by) the average tenure-track academic (i.e professor) over the course of the professor’s career. If this number is greater than 1, more PhDs will be created than there are tenured posts for them all to occupy – assuming that the number of tenured professors is roughly constant.

It turns out that the R0 at MIT is approximately 10. MIT produces some 500 PhDs per year, and it has 1000 faculty. So each faculty member produces 0.5 students per year. Since the average faculty member’s career at MIT spans 20 years, each faculty member produces 10 PhDs in total.

Though Neuroskeptic refers to the use of R0 in studies of disease propagation (an interesting parallel, isn't it?), a more relevant analogy is in demographics (see total fertility rate in Wikipedia). And analogy is what Bill Condie runs with in his post at Cosmos Blog:

"We show that the reproduction rate in academia is very high," they write. "For example, in engineering, a professor in the US graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his/her whole career on average, and only one of these graduates can replace the professor’s position.

"This implies that in a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA."

One quick critique of this research, which Neuroskeptic points out, is its focus on academic jobs as the relevant criterion for assessing whether the US is producing too many PhDs. Doctoral degrees in many applied fields open up many opportunities outside academia, and therefore, "overproduction" may not be an issue at all. However, there certainly are fields (humanities) and subfields (theoretical astrophysics and cosmology come to mind immediately) where academic jobs are the primary -- if not the only -- motivation for the incoming graduate students.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Must-Read Post of the Week

Sabine Hossenfelder at Back Reaction has a great post -- Open Peer Review and Its Discontents -- about the role of commentary (in blogs, FB and G+ streams, etc) on papers that have already appeared in the public domain either as a journal article or as pre-prints at sites Her post is triggered by a "back reaction" of sorts from an author whose paper came in for some open criticism in her blog; this is what she says about this reaction:

Hummel [the journalist who wrote about the article in a German magazine] wrote by email he found my blogpost very useful and that he had also contacted the author asking for a comment on my criticism. The author’s reply can be found in Hummel’s article. It says that he hadn’t read my blogpost, wouldn’t read it, and wouldn’t comment on it either because he doesn’t consider this proper ‘scientific means’ to argue with colleagues. The proper way for me to talk to him, he let the journalist know, is to either contact him or publish a reply on the arxiv. Hummel then asked me what I think about this.

To begin with I find this depressing. Here’s a young researcher who explicitly refuses to address criticism on his work, and moreover thinks this is proper scientific behavior. I could understand that he doesn’t want to talk to me, evil aggressive blogger that I am, but that he refuses to explain his research to a third party isn’t only bad science communication, it’s actively damaging the image of science.

IISc Scientist in Forbes-India's 30-Under-30 List

A recent issue of Forbes-India featured a 30-Under-30 list (which sounds very much like the MIT Tech Review's 35-Under-35 list of innovators). It's great to see Prerna Sharma, a colleague in the Department of Physics (and a TIFR alumna), in the list. Also, Sharma is the lone scientist in the list!

Oliver Sacks on His Last Months

He has recently learned that he has "multiple metastases in the liver," the kind of cancer that "cannot be halted." He has a detached, yet touching, article on "how [he plans] to live out the months that remain to me." Here's a section on some of his choices, and the reasons behind them:

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. [...]

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Game Theorist as Finance Minister

Yanis Varoufakis, finance minister of Greece and a former econ professor specializing in game theory, has a great op-ed on why his field provides a very poor basis for his actions: No Time for Games in Europe:

Game theorists analyze negotiations as if they were split-a-pie games involving selfish players. Because I spent many years during my previous life as an academic researching game theory, some commentators rushed to presume that as Greece’s new finance minister I was busily devising bluffs, stratagems and outside options, struggling to improve upon a weak hand.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, my game-theory background convinced me that it would be pure folly to think of the current deliberations between Greece and our partners as a bargaining game to be won or lost via bluffs and tactical subterfuge.

The trouble with game theory, as I used to tell my students, is that it takes for granted the players’ motives. In poker or blackjack this assumption is unproblematic. But in the current deliberations between our European partners and Greece’s new government, the whole point is to forge new motives. To fashion a fresh mind-set that transcends national divides, dissolves the creditor-debtor distinction in favor of a pan-European perspective, and places the common European good above petty politics, dogma that proves toxic if universalized, and an us-versus-them mind-set.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


  1. Must-read essay of the week: Stephen Marche in The Guardian: Centireading force: why reading a book 100 times is a great idea. Brought back wonderful memories of reading Tamil writer Sujatha's novels so many, so many times that Marche's description of this experience totally resonated with me: "familiarity with the text verges on memorisation – the sensation of the words passing over the eyes like cud through the fourth stomach of a cow." He actually has more about this experience:

    By the time you read something more than a hundred times, you’ve passed well beyond “knowing how it turns out”. The next sentence is known before the sentence you’re reading is finished. As I reread Hamlet now, I know as Gertrude says, “Why seems it so with thee?” that Hamlet will say “Seems, Madam? Nay it is. I know not seems.” I know as Bertie asks “What are the chances of a cobra biting Harold, Jeeves?” that Jeeves will answer: “Slight, I should imagine, sir. And in such an event, knowing the boy as intimately as I do, my anxiety would be entirely for the snake.” Centireading reveals a pleasure peculiar to text lurking underneath story and language and even understanding.

  2. Austin Frakt and Aaron E. Carroll in NYTimes: Can This Treatment Help Me? There’s a Statistic for That. And that statistic is called NNT -- number needed to treat:

    Developed in the 1980s, the N.N.T. tells us how many people must be treated for one person to derive benefit. An N.N.T. of one would mean every person treated improves and every person not treated fails to, which is how we tend to think most therapies work.

    What may surprise you is that N.N.T.s are often much higher than one. Double- and even triple-digit N.N.T.s are common.

    [Take the case of aspirin, for example.] According to clinical trials, if about 2,000 people follow these guidelines over a two-year period, one additional first heart attack will be prevented.

    That doesn’t mean the 1,999 other people have heart attacks. The fact is, on average about 3.6 of them would have a first heart attack regardless of whether they took the aspirin. Even more important, 1,995.4 people would never have a heart attack whether or not they took aspirin. Only one person is actually affected by aspirin. If he takes it, the number of people who remain heart attack-free rises to 1996.4. If he doesn’t, the number remains 1995.4. But for 1,999 of the 2,000 people, aspirin doesn’t make any difference at all.

  3. Evelyn Lamb in SciAm Blogs: Gauss and Germain on Pleasure and Passion. Excerpts from a wonderful letter from Carl Friedrich Gauss to Sophie Germain after he learnt that Germain, who was writing to him earlier under the name of one Monsieur LeBlanc, was actually a woman.

Saturday, February 07, 2015


  1. Pushpa Bhargava in The Hindu: Scientists without a Scientific Temper.

  2. Jeffrey Mervis in Science Insider: Data check: Why do Chinese and Indian students come to US universities?. See also Elizabeth Redden at Inside Higher Ed: International Enrollment Up.

  3. Rachel Bernstein in Science Insider: Belief that some fields require 'brilliance' may keep women out.

  4. The US Office of Research Integrity presents The Research Clinic, an "interactive training video [that] educates clinical and social researchers on the importance of appropriately protecting research subjects and avoiding research misconduct."

Ram Guha on Indian Leaders' Displays of Self-Love


In an NDTV opinion piece, he ticks off a whole bunch of India's scientific and intellectual elite -- including C.N.R. Rao, R.A. Mashelkar, Amartya Sen, and Jagdish Bhagwati. If you enjoy people bashing big egos, you will like this one a lot. Guha pulls no punches!

It's not all negative, though. Guha does offer a wonderful positive example: Obaid Siddiqi, the founder of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. Here's an excerpt from this section:

To be sure, not all Indian scientists are as boastful as Rao or Mashelkar. One of my own intellectual heroes is the late Obaid Siddiqi, who founded theNational Centre for Biological Sciences, arguably India's most high quality scientific laboratory. Siddiqi, who combined intellectual brilliance with personal rectitude, recruited a team of gifted young scientists and then left them the institute to run. He nurtured an atmosphere of egalitarianism in the NCBS, where juniors could fearlessly challenge seniors and where honorifics such as 'Sir', 'Professor'. were rigorously eschewed. Sadly, not many Indian scientists are cut of the same cloth as Obaid Siddiqi. In their youth, C.N.R. Rao and R.A. Mashelkar undoubtedly did first-rate scientific work. But, rather than allow younger people to take over scientific leadership as they themselves grew older, they consolidated their own position and power. Worse still, they encouraged flattery and chamchagiri, as manifested most spectacularly in Rao allowing a circle to be named after him.