Thursday, October 3, 2013

Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

I usually refrain from talking about women in science issues to avoid the risk of being stereotyped as yet another shrill feminist selling a sob tale about problems faced by women in the male-dominated scientific era. Over the years, however, I have unwillingly yet unmistakably realized the importance of this issue which, even if doesn't affect the lucky few in their immediate surroundings or future, leads to an undesirable and unhealthy skewness within the scientific culture and its practitioners, who "by construction" should be unbiased if nothing else.

Eileen Pollack in her excellent article in today's New York Times

articulates convincingly many such problems and concomitant challenges faced by women in scientific fields. She is a Yale alumni and her undergraduate major was Physics, both facts which bring the story quite close to home for me (though, unlike Eileen, I was a graduate student there and had a very pleasant experience overall!).  The article is a bit long but a very easy and engaging read.

One of the statements in Pollack's article which resonated with my experience more than the others was this:

...people’s biases stem from “repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent by simultaneously emphasizing their warmth and likability compared to men.”

This has actually manifested itself in a few varieties during my academic experience. Quite a few women scientists I know, who are very competitive in their fields, almost always tend to be slightly (and surprisingly!) apologetic about it. This subconscious or conscious feeling (hint: which is definitely not genetic or biological) necessarily forces them to "conform" in some other way and appear conciliatory in their personal interactions. Men, on the other hand, do not usually feel such inhibitions and even if they do it is a personal choice/trait not some social interaction protocol seemingly impressed upon by the community.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Link SING!

 What is a really really fun ways to talk about physics?  Answer: Music, as proved by the links below.

1. A cappella String theory, loops, renormalization (basically everything none of us quite understand).

2. A sonnet on Quantum Error Correction by Daniel Gottesman.

3. A poem on Quantum Cryptography by John Preskill. I liked it so much that I am putting it here.

Alice said to her friend Eve,
"Why do you practice to deceive?
You know I need to talk to Bob.
Without that I won't have a job.
"Bob can't know where my note has been.
He thinks that you are listening in.
He wonders if it's safe enough
For me to send him secret stuff.
"And Bob's right not to trust you, Eve,
With quantum tricks stuffed up your sleeve.
But he thinks we can freeze you out,
With quantum tricks we've learned about.
"With quantum states, what we achieve
Defeats whatever you conceive.
So even Bob has to believe
That you can’t hear us, can you Eve?"  
                                      (John Preskill)

You can "eve-sdrop" on some of Preskill's other verses here.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Link Think

Hi bloggers,

I am starting a new feature where I am going to share interesting web-links. mostly related to Science. These may include news articles, popular physics essays or even blog pieces written by the vibrant community of scientist bloggers. Here is the first installment.

1. John Preskill's nice piece, where he summarizes the different viewpoints prevalent in the scientific communities on the "Firewall Paradox", recently put forward  by the AMPS team (the acronym draws from the initials of the four researchers involved this work --- Ahmed Almheiri, Donald Marolf, and James Sully, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Dr. Polchinski of the KITP, Santa Barbara.) It boils down to a revisitation of the black hole information paradox, over which John Preskill had won a bet against Stephen Hawking in 2004. For an accessible commnetary, correct in essentials, see the New York times article here.

2. Scott Aaronson on NSA's recent claim about their groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities. He entertainingly alludes to the possibility of NSA acquiring a quantum computer from D-wave - a company of whose claims he is the self-proclaimed Chief Skeptic!

3. A slightly old, but really well written commentary in Quanta Magazine, on a recent theoretical breakthrough which shows how an untrusted or noisy quantum system may be employed for secure quantum key distribution.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

 Book: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Author: Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been one of my overdue reads. I finally spotted it in the Carnegie Mellon Bookstore on a visit to my husband's office, and picked it up encouraged by the significant discounts offered on textbooks. I find I am still reeling under the effect of the three hours I devoted reading it in one-shot.

It is actually an easy one to finish soon --- partly due to its modest length shy of 200 pages; But mostly due to its vastly identifiable narrative, which gets even too close for comfort, repeatedly!Written in first person, it charts the life of a Pakistani immigrant named Changez in New York City, and the irrevocable changes the 9/11 attacks bring for him. Starting out as a princeton-graduated successful financier in New York City, he narrates the extinguishing of his American dream both professionally and personally, and his almost inescapable plummet into something the world would/can only identify as fundamentalism. His initial denial that anything can go wrong, the ensuing tension, doubt, self-reproach and final transition into a dark world outside neon lights of Times Square is described with heart-rending simplicity. It is the inevitability of this evolution, which Hamid conveys so masterfully to his readers, that makes the book so alarming yet so un-put-downable.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a chilling reminder that the emotional debris of WTC attacks extends far beyond ground zero; a poignant message that the fault-lines it created in hearts and minds will take much longer than 12 years to be healed. But it must be done before the fundamentalism takes over the reluctance...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Is this the end of English?

Breaking News!

Google sides with traitors to the English language over dictionary definition of literally

If you don't believe me ask Ambrose Bierce who tried to teach us write right, back in 1909. The entire book is available online through Project Gutenberg, though such a gem must/should have seen light of the day.

He argues -- "Literally for Figuratively. It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable."  The rest of it also makes for a quite a fun read.

I 'confess' that I 'still continue' to 'literally' fume abut Google being literally 'mistaken' about 'literally'. Rest, 'later on'.  I guess I definitely need a personal copy of Bierce's book. Literally!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review Roundup

This is a list of reviews for the latest books and movies I have recently watched.

1. Book: Inferno
    Author: Dan Brown

This book again finds Brown's character Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, in a situation straight out of an action thriller, hardly a regular occurrence in the life of an academician (not counting the grant deadline weeks!). The extra touch is Langdon being a savior of the planet this time, against brilliant semi-mad scientist Bertrand Zobrist who has designs to unleash "hell" (hence the name Inferno) on the human civilization which just refuses to stop growing. Additionally, the backdrop constantly derives from Dante Alighieri's epic poem 'Divine Comedy' of which Inferno forms a celebrated first section. In the process, Brown frequently slips into a travelogue spirit where he spends paragraphs after paragraphs giving the reader a "wiki-like"  description of  cathedrals and museums in the Italian city of Florence (birth place of Dante), some of them not even relevant to the plot. Quite typically as in his previous works, this takes the readers into the regime of reading between the lines, deciphering symbols, and navigating dark corridors of medieval history and even futuristic science. I think this is an essential component of Brown's style of writing which makes him tick with such a wide audience --- of making the reader feel as if  'he/she knows' while keeping a pace which precludes the question 'how' or even 'what'. Add a dash of conspiracy theory, which Brown specializes in and you have a bestseller on your shelf. This is what Inferno manages to achieve quite successfully, especially as compared to Brown's previous effort 'The Lost Symbol' -- where reading the fine print only leads to an empty head throbbing with pain. So go ahead and pick Inferno; you will enjoy it if you flow along with Brown's spirit of crashing head long into historical tidbits, but do not question much.

2. Movie: Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani
    Actors: Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone et al.

I am not surprised this movie is doing well, but I am not happy about it either. It is easy for a movie with lead actors like Kapoor to be saleable hits these days, unless the story line is irretrievably retarded. This movie exploits the presence of its lead actors to its full advantage, but unfortunately neither of the characterizations seem genuine. The misplaced view of self, the main protagonist Kabir (Kapoor) seems to champion throughout the movie and almost gets away with it, seems absolutely contrived to say the least. If the contemporary generation is finding a resonance with this so called "devil-may-care" attitude, this portrayal goes from being annoyingly superficial to downright disturbing. Unlike the movie, where Kapoor manages to salvage all his relationships and sings/sobs his way into hearts of family and friends whom he has trashed, real life can be pretty stingy in offering redemption opportunities. The other stereotype this movie promotes is that unless you are a wastrel in your school/college days, you would turn into a self-bashing, forlorn wretch with little meaning to your life. This is what 'padhaku' Naina (Padukone) seems to personify when she yells at her mother and says "I want a holiday", before running off to Manali with her cool friends. When she comes back, the ugly duckling has turned into a swan, shed her number 5 glasses, is comfortable flaunting her waist along with her legs, and has fallen in love with the cool Kabir. The reinvented Naina then even dares to sermonize foreign-returned Kabir on 'how to lead a life' (with whom she is still in love for some god-forsaken reason), sharing pearls of wisdom like importance of viewing DDLJ at Maratha Mandir over Phantom of the Opera at Broadway. Cliched does not even begin to capture it.

If you want better worth for your popcorn, go and watch DDLJ at Maratha Mandir. Seriously!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Food Security Bill: Links

The current debate in parliament over the food security bill is currently in a stalemate. A quick recap of the features of this bill which proposes food subsidies to two-thirds of India's population, a staggering 800 million people, can be found here.
(P.S. It gives a good handle on numbers, without any distractions of a logical debate which is anyways beyond the regime of reporting style of NDTV severely cramped by their congress-blind mypoic hogwash).

Why the proposed bill compounds the problem, instead of solving it, especially in the Indian set up is well-articulated by Vivek Dehejia, an economics professor at Carleton University in Canada in his recent article in business standard. He argues

" (such) defence exists for supporting an expansion of the provision of subsidised food through the inefficient and corruption-prone public distribution system (PDS). A widening food entitlement under the notoriously leaky PDS, rather than through direct cash transfers, is self-evidently a giant step backward in rationalising the provision of public goods and services to the poor and disadvantaged."

Saturday, April 20, 2013

An afterthought to Aurat

 I have been in permanent awe of the poem "Aurat" written by one of the giants of last century poets Kaifi Azmi, ever since I heard it the first time (you can find it here, along with a translation). The recent events of unimaginable cruelty perpetrated against Indian women made me revisit it and reflect over the ever-growing relevance of its philosophy. As I wondered to myself the progressive nature of his great verse, my thoughts found a resonance in the spirit of the original masterpiece. These are my verses, written in the same spirit as the original, but obviously no match for its eloquence.


Beshak teri masoomiyat ko kuchla sabne
Teri ruswaiyon ka muzehka banaya sabne
Ashqon ke sailaab mein na ise behne dena
Jo aag mann mein jali, roshan use rehne dena
Tanhaiyon mein bhi jashn hi karna hai tujhe

Uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe

Darr na tu apni takdeer se ab
Tujhe bhi azaad jeene ka hai har-haq
Khwahish-e-gair par aur tu kurbaan na ho
Apne wajood ki pehchann se anjaan na ho
Har saans mein ek umr ko jeena hai tujhe

Uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe


Though your innocence has been despoiled,
Your destruction has been ridiculed,
Don't let your tears wash away,
The fire that burns bright in your heart
Celebrate even in desolation,

Get up, my love, you have to walk with me

Don't fear what awaits as destiny
You have every right to live free
Don't sacrifice any more for wishes of others
Don't remain ignorant of your own identity
A life awaits you in every breath,

Get up, my love, you have to walk with me

                                                  -- Archana