Monday, January 22, 2018

Recap 2017: Coming-of-age year as a university professor

I cannot believe that I have not blogged in over an year (last post being January 10, 2017!!). This can be ascribed, at least partly, to the fact that last year I started my faculty position full throttle. I think all my experiences can be categorized into three broad categories --  Love, Labor, Lost, as I explain below.

LOVE: Things that I enjoy(ed) the most, i.e., these are the reasons I do what I do.

1. Long, intense research discussions --- collaborators, students, visitors, everyone's invited (and thank you!).
2. Designing new research courses --- I developed and taught a new graduate course on quantum information in Fall; it was a lot of fun, I learned a ton, and (most) students in the class worked hard and liked the content.
3. Writing comprehensive and interesting papers --- it still gives the same sense of exhilaration, which I got on seeing my first published paper.
4. Mentoring students --- this is probably the high point of the week for me. It is amazing to have junior collaborators (a.k.a. postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students) work with you and witness/be a part of their evolution as a scientist.
5. Background reading for grant/proposal writing --- Submitting grants is an essential part of being an academician in the US. Though one of the high-stress points, the preparation for writing a (good) grant necessitates a thorough reading and vetting of scientific literature in the relevant field. So despite the accompanying paperwork (which can be overwhelming for a beginner, especially), it can be used as a platform to catalyze conception of new ideas, clarify current ones, and place completed ones into a cohesive framework.
6. Initiating new collaborations --- there is nothing like getting challenged by new perspectives and making friends in the process.
7. Learning new things --- I sat through a graduate course on wonderful general relativity taught by a colleague. Would totally do it again if another interesting course comes by (this is a great perk of being in a university environment!)
8. Attending research seminars --- It is always instructive to hear scientists talk about their work, even those outside your immediate area of research. Plus it also rejuvenates those lazy weekday afternoons with a cup of coffee, a bite of donut, and informed questions from students serving like an extra shot of serotonin!

LABOR: Things that I remain neutral about, i.e., I know I have to do these as a part of my job and I won't mind doing them again.

1. Faculty meetings
2. Organizing and giving research seminars
3. Giving talks at over-subscribed conferences (such as, APS march meetings)
4. Maintaining my website and online academic profiles (such as, Linkedin and google scholar)
5. University/Departmental service (serving on committees, reviewing internal reports and grants etc.)
6. Teaching non-physics majors
7. Revising Nth draft of a paper-in-works over time t (when N >3 && t --> 1 year)

LOST: Things that I have to come to terms with, i.e., in order to enable the LOVE, I have to keep doing/tolerating these (left to myself, I would never put up with them..ever!)

1. Grant and paper rejections (especially the nasty ones)
2. Grading homeworks for big undergraduate classes (soul crushing!)
3. Writing lukewarm letters of recommendation for students I barely know
4. Administrative meetings
5. Piles of pestilential paperwork [1]
6. Emails (will there ever be an end??)
7. Departmental politics (ughh!)

[1] Alliteration suggests that I hate it more than I care to admit.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Intelligence and creativity

"The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination." (Albert Einstein)

Intelligence is a virtue -- believe me I know. I was one of those front bench kids who always did extremely well at school and were poster boys/girls for neighbors and relatives (at least as far as the societal notion of intelligence goes).  The reason I turned out (semi-)normal and without a bloated head, was because my parents had their own stellar academic records. So, at least within the confines of our home, there was nothing special about me, nor did I receive the expected glory talks or pats-on-the-back. I, therefore, clearly remember how the first real recognition from my parents came about.

In Indian schools, once we finish our tenth grade one has the liberty to choose subjects for further studies broadly categorized into three streams -- Science, Commerce and Humanities. This so-called liberty, unfortunately, is more of a hierarchy of intelligence itself with top students choosing science, followed by those studying Commerce, and a steep fall from prestige if you go and take up humanities.* Our school, being one of the more progressive ones at the time, had decided to not follow this hierarchy (at least not strictly!) and evaluate the 'aptitude' of students instead.** The idea was that this would help the students to make better informed choices and not just rely on their grades. For this purpose, all tenth grade students in my batch took IQ tests and aptitude tests at the end of school year, and parents of each student were invited to discuss the results with the school counselor.*** I still remember my mother being genuinely (and, to my annoyance, surprisingly!) pleased when she learnt that I had an IQ in the +2\sigma range of the average human IQ. Another thing which I remember was the aptitude chart which showed the student's interest in various lines of work. I squinted at the sheets lying in a pile and saw charts that looked like a doodle of Himalayan peaks. When the counselor pulled up my aptitude chart, it looked like an ECG of a dying man! --- a straight line with a tiny lonely blip near "administration", which immediately triggered the image of a gray-haired, middle-aged me fussing over office filing system in my mind.**** I quickly shoved it out of my sight as I did not want any unhappy distractions while I basked in my IQ glory.

Any way, I did take science in high school as I genuinely liked it by then. Plus, I was assured by my IQ tests that I was a natural at almost all the subjects, except for a little trouble with physics. I was still bothered by my non-existent aptitude for any occupation, but my counselor consoled me that maybe if I found something even mildly interesting, my aptitude-less brain would do well given my killer IQ! As it turned out, I ended up pursuing physics in college. It was more a process of elimination rather than selection at the time (just like most of my life-altering decisions!). Taxonomy had killed biology for me and I was at the end of my tether with organic chemistry (alkanes, alkenes, alkynes...seriously!). Also my mother, who has been a maths wizard since the age of three, thought pure maths would be too abstract for my lateral mind and I listened.

In spite of not having enough natural flair in the subject I chose, and being acutely aware of this conflict between aptitude and interest, I topped the university exams. And the more I learnt physics, the more I liked it and the better I got at it. This made me realize that the mysterious 'aptitude', after all, is not an inherent fixed quality, but a dynamic one that can be cultivated through interest. I eventually pursued research in quantum physics and currently I'm a university professor in the US. The reason for sharing this long-winded history, is the realization it has afforded me about the concept of intelligence. Even in the fields such as academic research that, by construction, seem most cerebral, the really successful and happy scientists are the ones who are the most creative. In fact, pursuing research is the single most important activity that has demolished the usual beliefs about intelligence I grew up with. Confronted by an unsolved problem, it does not really matter how fast can you solve equations or multiply numbers in your head, it is all about how much you enjoy thinking about different things or thinking things differently! And more often than not it is sheer doggedness of this creative pursuit, rather than photographic memory, that leads to interesting results!

This also ties in to a recent podcast I heard about 'Complexity and stupidity'. It was a conversation where one of my favorite commentators and authors Sam Harris talks to biologist David Krakauer about nature of human intelligence and stupidity. Krakauer, who was himself included among 50 smartest minds by Wired magazine, expounds on the concept of intelligence (or, lack of it = stupidity) and I quote from his interview below:

"...The example I like to give is Rubik’s cube, because it’s a beautiful little mental model, a metaphor. If I gave you a cube and asked you to solve it, and you just randomly manipulated it, since it has on the order of 10 quintillion solutions, which is a very large number, if you were immortal, you would eventually solve it. But it would take a lifetime of several universes to do so. That is random performance. Stupid performance is if you took just one face of the cube and manipulated that one face and rotated it forever. As everyone knows, if you did that, you would never solve the cube. It would be an infinite process that would never be resolved. That, in my definition, would be stupid. It is significantly worse than chance.
Now let’s take someone who has learned how to manipulate a cube and is familiar with various rules that allow you, from any initial configuration, to solve the cube in 20 minutes or less. That is intelligent behavior, significantly better than chance. This sounds a little counterintuitive, perhaps, until you realize that’s how we use the word in our daily lives. If I sat down with an extraordinary mathematician and I said, “I can’t solve that equation,” and he said, “Well, no, it’s easy. Here, this is what you do,” I’d look at it and I’d say, “Oh, yes, it is easy. You made that look easy.” That’s what we mean when we say someone is smart. They make things look easy. 

If, on the other hand, I sat down with someone who was incapable, and he just kept dividing by two, for whatever reason, I would say, “What on earth are you doing? What a stupid thing to do. You’ll never solve the problem that way.”
So that is what we mean by intelligence. It’s the thing we do that ensures that the problem is efficiently solved and in a way that makes it appear effortless. And stupidity is a set of rules that we use to ensure that the problem will be solved in longer than chance or never and is nevertheless pursued with alacrity and enthusiasm. ..."
I find Krakauer's definition illuminating for more than one reasons:
- First, it makes the elusive concept of intelligence, usually quantified by an absolute scaleless number called IQ, more concrete and accessible.
- Second, it shows that intelligence is something dynamic and diverse. It may involve ruminating about physics of the universe or solving a rubik's cube.
- Third, and most importantly, it really challenges the conventional view of intellectualism and makes intelligence indistinguishable from creativity. Because it is creativity which helps us solve problems in unforeseen and new ways.

So the next time you want to feel intelligent, go paint something, or dance to your favorite song. Who knew being intelligent could be so much fun!


* 99.9% of the times people, including you and your parents, would believe that you did not have the grades to 'get science' (pun intended). If you are one of the arty types and choose to inflict the ultimate misery of pursuing fine arts upon yourself, be assured to get ample solitude to brush up your doodling skills, when you would be hiding under the bed trying to ignore all the sympathetic "tcha-tchas" at family dinners.
** Not progressive enough to offer humanities though, since the administrators feared it would bring down the average performance of the school!
*** One of our favorite English teachers had volunteered to double up as a counselor. She must have had a degree in psychology or something because she was really good with students.
**** My parents had a more optimistic outlook and thought that I may want to become an IAS officer (powerful bureaucrats in Indian government).

Friday, September 16, 2016

Summer reading - fiction

This has been a whirlwind of a summer! Lots of developments at professional front (wrapping my postdoc and starting my new faculty job!) and personal front (moving to my new home and setting it up) dissolved days into strings of hours that passed in a blur of activity. Looking back at the past couple of months, I find it incredible how much can be done each time the Earth completes a single spin on its axis!

One of the things that made this transition doubly amazing is that I re-'kindled' my romance with books (pun intended!). I guess it almost comes with the territory of packing and unpacking books into neat stacks, mulling over the color of new bookcases, fussing over bookends and creasing out tired-looking book dividers out of brown boxes. So it is only natural that I resume my blogging in this year sharing the titles (with my ratings and brief reviews of them) which provided me cozy corners amidst their pages when none existed outside.

1. The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3/5
Review: Part of the Inspector Alan Grant Series. Okay for patient readers, as all the action is strictly cerebral.

2. The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Detective fiction
Rating: 1.5/5
Review: Frequently hailed as one of the greatest american detective writings but hugely overrated in my opinion. The protagonist Samuel Spade conjures information out of 'thick' air and leaves you feeling like a fool.

3. The Kindness of Neighbors - Matthew Iden
Genre: Thriller/suspense
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: Short and crisp. Worth a quick read.

4. Behind Closed Doors - B. A. Paris
Genre: Modern thriller
Rating: 3/5
Review: Debut novel of the author. Fluid prose, well written. Not in the same league as Paula Hawkin's The Girl on the Train though.

5. After Anna - Alex lake
Genre: Modern thriller
Rating: 2.5/5
Review: Suffers a bit from Hannibal Lecter complex. But overall an okay time-pass read which does not require too much attention.

6. Good Omens - Neil Gaiman and Terry Patchett
Genre: Satire/Humor
Rating: 4/5
Review: Antichrist has arrived and has been kind of .. misplaced! Angels, fallen and otherwise, take it upon themselves to locate him and try to avert the apocalypse as they have got too attached to the imperfect ways of humans. Oh my god good (especially Mr. Crawly!). Do yourself a favor and please go and read it now. Note to self: read it again asap.

7. The Codex - Douglas Preston
Genre: Thriller/Treasure hunt
Rating: 3/5
Review: Good. If you like lost manuscripts, ancient tombs and trails, survival tales sort of things, this is for you.

8. Murder with Peacocks - Donna Andrews
Review. You got it. Forgettable!

9-15. Joe Dillard series (Books 1-7) - Scott Pratt
Genre: Legal thrillers
Rating: 3/5
Review: Ranges from average to some flashes of interesting twists. Definitely for fans of Grisham (I am not one of them).

16. The Professor - Robert Bailey
Genre: Legal thriller
Rating: 3/5
Review: Thoroughly american writing, enjoyable in parts. Passable.

17. Between Black and White - Robert Bailey
Genre: Legal Thriller
Rating: 2/5
Review: Continuation of characters from The Professor. Could have been an engaging story but writing is a let-down. Merely passable.

P.S. I wanted to try out legal thrillers once and I think I have had my fill with them for some years with 9-17.

18. Breakthrough - Michael C. Grumley
Genre: Scientific thriller
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: First book of a 3-part series. Involves conversations with intelligent dolphins, nuclear submarines, aliens, and apocalyptic undercurrents in shifting ice of Antartica. Engaging read.

19. Pines - Blake Crouch
Genre; Post-apocalyptic thriller
Rating: 2.5/5
Review: First book of wayward pines trilogy. Gave me a major divergent deja-vu. Will rather go for the TV series (if at all).

20. Diamond Dust - Anita Desai
Genre: Fiction (short stories)
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: Amazing as always, Anita Desai tells tales about flawed people in her flawless prose.

21. Sweetness at the bottom of the pie - Alan Bradley
Genre: Young adult detective fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: First book of series about the 11-year old charming and precocious Flavia De Luce, who goes about unraveling mysteries armed with her chemistry set and unbridled energy. Highly recommended especially for young girls. I am definitely going back for a second helping of this pie.

Currently reading:

1. Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman
2. One more thing - B. J. Novak

Monday, March 14, 2016

Happy Pi Day!

Don't rush to your nearest bakery -- not yet any way!

We are talking about the beautifully enigmatic and irrational number aka pi. Why today? -- given the precision provided by the digits on our calendars, 3.14.16 is the closest you can get to this ever elusive number hermit! So in the spirit of full disclosure it is actually a 'rounded' pi day like the one shown on the right (yum!).  For a more appropriate homage, I enclose the one I spotted at the Stata Center@MIT* below!

Well, as it turns the geeking out with this day does not stop yet. It also happens to be birthday of the most famous physicist ever -- yes it is 137th birthday of Albert Einstein which makes this extra special! In addition, 137 has its own hall of fame in physics ---due to fine structure constant, which is recognized as one of the fundamental constants of nature, and which is very close to 1/137!

As you can see alpha seems to be having its own little party with other constants (including pi), such as e = charge of an electron, \hbar = h/(2 pi) = (reduced) Planck's constant, c = speed of light in vacuum and \epsilon_{0} = permittivity of the free space. One of the reasons which carves \alpha firmly on the throne of geeks (and greeks!**), is that it sets the natural coupling strength of matter (electron) with radiation (photon) in Quantum Electrodynamics***.

Now you maybe wondering why did nature choose something as unexpected as 1/137 in its manifestation -- if you have any clues, you just might be able to solve one of the longest standing puzzles in Physics!

* It may just be a coincidence but MIT also hands out its decision for admissions today.
**being the first greek letter and all..
***The effective electric charge of the electron actually varies slightly with energy so the constant changes a bit depending on the energy scale at which you perform your experiment. So \alpha is not really a 'constant' as such, but hey it is pretty close and makes QED work so well, so we will let it be!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

When science creates ripples!

Image courtesy: Caltech
Today LIGO team unveiled what is potentially one of the greatest results in modern physics  -- first detection of gravitational waves, also called GW150914*, created when two black holes collided a good 1.3 billion years ago**! Count the number of wow-inducing words in that one sentence alone -- it (usually) does not get better than this.

It is a really big moment for both MIT and Caltech, two of the leading members of LIGO team. Being at MIT, I can almost sense the contagious enthusiasm in air. Rainer Weiss, an MIT professor, traces back the LIGO journey in this Q&A. In his email to the MIT community this morning, president L. Rafael Reif sums it up most aptly: "The discovery we celebrate today embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic."

Cockeyed optimism of scientists, as John Preskill from Caltech puts it, was essential for the success of this complex, ambitious and beautiful experiment. And now there is even more reason to continue with this die-hard optimism regarding the future*** of this effort. Kip Thorne, one of the original instigators of LIGO, stated in the live webcast that Advanced LIGO is operating at only one-third of its ultimate sensitivity, so when this interferometric window into the universe is fully opened -- we should have access to 27 times mores volume of the universe and see many such events in its eventful history!

First Higgs and now gravitational waves -- woohoo science!

*Indexing the date of September 14, 2015 when LIGO detectors at Hanford and Livingston recorded the coincidence event signifying a GW signature.
** The technical details can be found in this paper by the collaboration that appeared on the Physical Review Letters website today.
*** There are plans to build a third LIGO-like gravitational wave detector in India, which should be operational by 2020.

Monday, September 21, 2015

My new web page

Blogger friends,

My professional web page is public now :).

It is kind of a semi-beta version, in spite of the painfully-simple-to-use google site template (which works a lot like blogger unsurprisingly!). Still, I feel reasonably proud of myself in getting around to do it after all this time.

It seems to me that improving the search rank of a web page is an almost independent task from making it public --- which means that you should not assume that Google will show it up 'automatically' just because now you have fought that awkward feeling about going public with your site. I am still learning clever ways to improve search rank of my page, but my few efforts of registering it in the periodic web crawls of Google and submitting my sitemap for indexing have at least led to its appearance on page 2 of google search for my name. I am not sweating over it though since my google scholar page, that appears on page 1 for my name search, has a link to my web page and should help do the job at the cost of an extra click.

Comments welcome. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Google News

No, I don't mean to suggest searching for news on Google; I am alluding to an eventful last week at Mountain View:

1. Google has gone sans serif. It recently changed the logo that appears on its famous unadorned search page*, a change that has been called the biggest update for Google in last 16 years --- and this is when Google recently rebranded all its services and subsidiaries under a common conglomerate called the Alphabet! The new logo has been touted as having a more "benevolent" design with particular friendliness towards mobile devices. See a detailed evolution of the ubiquitous colorful 6 letters, as heard from the horse's mouth itself, here.

2. In another news, Google's driverless cars are running into a unique, but inevitable, problem -- perfect robots meet imperfect humans! According to the company, the cars are too safe as they follow the book when it comes to traffic rules, without spontaneous adjustments such as the ones human drivers are used to doing. Last month when one of the robot cars came to a halt to allow right of way to a pedestrian, it was rear-ended by a car driven by a fallible human being! Compels me to paraphrase the current (perennial?) state of "human"-ity in words of Christopher Hitchens -- "..the search of utopia is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle." **

P.S. Interestingly this ties into an article that I shared in my earlier post Link Think, where Nicolas Carr (in NYT again) had written about the impossibility of machines replacing humans (ever!). Seems like, it is not overcoming human imperfections but rather replicating them, that turns out to be  most daunting after all!

3. In the recent issue of TIME magazine, I read about the 'most powerful woman on the internet' --YouTube's current CEO Susan Wojcicki. She goes a long way back with Google (Page and Brin started the company practically in her garage!) and, much unconventionally, has a non-technical background unlike the rest of Google's top brass. Apparently, this plays out as a major strength for her and helps her decide on YouTube content from a universal perspective and with mass appeal (amusingly, she sometimes first tests the user experience using her four kids as the guinea pigs!). Recommended reading***.

* It was developed by Marissa Meyer, one of the high power tech women in Silicon valley and current CEO/President of Yahoo! , during her time at Google as vice president of Google Search.
** I should clarify that I am favorably intrigued by this effort of Google. I totally can do with a robot chauffeur, or better still, an implicit one!
*** though behind a paywall