Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Travelling southbound on Interstate 91, just crossing into Connecticut from Massachusetts, came across this not so inviting town.

Monday, July 30, 2007

You know you are in Princeton when ...

... the security guard talks about Physics, Philosophy and (Satyajit) Ray, and asserts that he is ready to bet a thousand bucks that Higgs would not be found at LHC.

For the uninitiated, Higgs Boson is the till date elusive, theoretically predicted absolutely essential particle that Physicists are hoping to discover at LHC (large hadron Collider), world's highest energy particle collider being built at CERN at a cost of multi billion dollars.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Claim to fame of APJ?

Amidst this Pratibha Patil bashing, I read this piece of news where her predecessor, APJ Abdul Kalam, asked him to be referred as Professor, not Ex-President and was wholeheartedly applauded. Please not be mistaken, I am equally disgraced by, as other conscientious citizens, to see a complete stranger (Yes, I do follow Indian politics pretty well, and no, I have never heard of her before) getting to occupy the highest constitutional post in our country. However, I am slightly surprised by the attention and reverence "Prof. Kalam" is receiving - so I tried to dig a little bit deeper. As for his academic career, he specialized in Aeronautical Engineering from Madras Institute of Technology - which basically tells me that he was an engineer.

Then, Dr. Kalam made significant contribution as Project Director to develop India's first indigenous Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-III) which successfully injected the Rohini satellite in the near earth orbit in July 1980 and made India an exclusive member of Space Club. He was responsible for the evolution of ISRO's launch vehicle programme, particularly the PSLV configuration. After working for two decades in ISRO and mastering launch vehicle technologies, Dr. Kalam took up the responsibility of developing Indigenous Guided Missiles at Defence Research and Development Organisation as the Chief Executive of Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). He was responsible for the development and operationalisation of AGNI and PRITHVI Missiles and for building indigenous capability in critical technologies through networking of multiple institutions. Anyone who knows a bit about big scientific or engineering projects, would tell you that individual achievements are minimum in these endeavours. It cant be "he" who actually "built" anything - he was most probably in the supervising group. Good job, Mr. Kalam - but I don't see what is so special in these.

And I also take issues with why he would be referred as "Dr. Kalam" then. Because, apparently Dr. Kalam is one of the most distinguished scientists of India with the unique honour of receiving honorary doctorates from 30 universities and institutions. Now someone please tell me why getting honorary doctorate from a zillion places would make one a "distinguished scientist". Should not it be other way around? Aerospace engineering is not some exotic subject, nor I can see him doing any ground breaking scientific work, that he deserves an honorary doctorate, and then being famous because of that. His teaching experiences are minimal too, and so he being recruited as professor directly at Anna University is somewhat odd too.

Rest of his achievements before becoming the president? He was the Scientific Adviser to Defence Minister and Secretary, Department of Defence Research & Development from July 1992 to December 1999. During this period he led to the weaponisation of strategic missile systems and the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in collaboration with Department of Atomic Energy, which made India a nuclear weapon State. He also gave thrust to self-reliance in defence systems by progressing multiple development tasks and mission projects such as Light Combat Aircraft.s Chairman of Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) and as an eminent scientist, he led the country with the help of 500 experts to arrive at Technology Vision 2020 giving a road map for transforming India from the present developing status to a developed nation. Dr. Kalam has served as the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, in the rank of Cabinet Minister, from November 1999 to November 2001 and was responsible for evolving policies, strategies and missions for many development applications. Dr. Kalam was also the Chairman, Ex-officio, of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (SAC-C) and piloted India Millennium Mission 2020.
If ones notices, all of them are administrative positions, mostly political appointment. I simply do not see how and when he becomes an eminent scientist. It seems like he is more an example of a person being at the right time at right place than the icon he is made out to be.

(All of the facts are quoted from the the Abdul Kalam official page.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Happy Birthday!

Hundred and fifty posts in a couple of years - thats just under one and half posts per week. When I started off blogging exactly two years back, I could not trust me enough that I would keep blogging for a while, leave alone for two years. Although not a lot of people read it regularly, and even less actually leave comments, some do, and my thanks to all the visible and invisible readers. This blog turns two tonight, and I now I have grown quite addicted to the concept of blogging. As for the birthday gift, I already got it one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

To Be (In Europe) or Not To Be!

Since coming back from CERN last month, this is one question I have been asked too many times - and like every other "important" question I face, this one has no clear answer. And the choice is not mine anyway. I will probably land up wherever people are kind enough to offer me to work with them. Just for argument's sake though, here are my thoughts.

The short answer would be Europe is scenic, but US feels like home. I do not know whether this is what four years of America did to me, but that is exactly how I felt after coming back. May be its the language. Or just the familiarity with everything so weirdly American. Probably a combination of both.

In Europe, I was a tourist. Everything felt alien to me. And as a tourist, that is precisely what you want. US is mostly predictable for me now - even when I go to someplace totally new here, I pretty much know what to expect, and the overall scheme of things. Exploring a new culture is definitely a learning experience, but to be a part of it may be a little too demanding. Funnily, I have heard people presenting the same argument while moving back to India from here, and I now get the point. Familiarity does not always breed contempt.

Growing up in India, where aping 70's US culture was the coolest thing for the teenagers, and now eating at MacDonald's is the idea of a family dinner, and then coming straight to US, I never saw a worldview where US is so insignificant, people are so nonchalant about USA, as I saw in Europe. And that was a welcome change. In India, we go overboard to cater to the needs of the American tourists, and at a very superficial level. The first class coach in the intercity express from Agra to Jaipur had 110 volts American plug points only. While that was helpful for me, I still think its a disgrace. In Europe, there are hoards of America tourists everywhere, but none really cares, and they struggle to find their way around, like everyone else. Of course people are in general helpful, but that's true in general, not like in Rajasthan, where "Foreign" tourists were always given a warmer reception, to put it mildly.

While these things are what I liked about Europe, precisely these make the idea of staying long term there a bit uncomfortable. The center of gravity of world science has not yet shifted back to Europe, consequently getting a job is still easier in USA. And the general perception in the community mirrors the old saying - out of sight is out of mind - it is easier to get American jobs ( "jobs" in the very broad sense of the term, anything from a post doctoral position to an appointment in a research lab, or even in industry) if one applies from US.

Academically, CERN presents an incredible opportunity roughly at at the same time when I think I would graduate. The much anticipated LHC, world's highest energy particle collider starts taking data, and for anyone in the field, that is the time to be there. However, since I am an absolute non expert of hardware, and pretty much what I need to do can be done remotely, there is no acute need for me to be there physically, although people do that all the time.

So I guess the ideal "job" would be one where I would be still based in US, but would get to travel to CERN often. The best of both worlds.

P. S - I must acknowledge one of my "blogger friends", for suggesting that I come up with a post on this.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"Physical" Traveling

There are not too many perks for a graduate student here. Traveling on academic purposes is one of those rare ones - and I am having an excellent summer by that yardstick. First was the now well documented Europe trip - and it was primarily a summer school in CERN. Within a couple of weeks after coming back, I rushed to Fermilab Chicago, for a presentation our internal collaboration group meeting. After spending the weekend in Chicago, and catching up with some old friends, now I am at Princeton, NJ for another summer school.

I have been here before. But now as a pseudo-insider, Princeton does look classy, and the Institute of Advanced Studies (made famous by Einstein, among others) classier. Among the speakers there are some really big names of the field, and its not too hard to see legends around. This is really isolated from the rest of the world though - nearest civilizations is half an hour walk away, with virtually non existent public transportation.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Magnetic Attraction!

A mini Statute of Liberty. Five dancing Korean dolls. A miniature Gondola. Two colorful Venetian masks. One showing the Declaration of Independence, another the first draft of the Constitution. A half coffee mug from Minneapolis. A beautifully hand crafted shell from "She Sells Seashells" in some Florida beach. A little one looking exactly like a piece of Swiss Chocolate. A moose head from Massachusetts. A maple leaf from Vermont (or was in New Hampshire?). A Cuckoo clock from Geneva. A miniature wooden guitar from Nashville. Ones depicting Grand Canyon, Smokey Mountains, Amish Country and much more.

These are among the over hundred refrigerator magnets I bought from pretty much all the places I travelled to in last few years. Some people buy shot glasses, some by tee shirts as souvenirs. I collect magnets. One side of my fridge is so crowded now, that I have to think of some other place to put them. Any suggestions?

And then there are the humorous ones. I picked up one from Charlotte airport years back, which said, "I had a life once...Now I have a computer and modem! ". When I started blogging later, it seemed the ideal description. Another proclaims, "Being organized interferes with my creativity" - if you visit me once, you would know how true is that. And today, stopping at a nondescript gas station on my way to Tallahassee, I just could not resist picking up this. (With all due apologies to the creative people at Verizon...)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Europe Travelogue Part 7: Paris

I have been to so many American cities in these years, but Paris was so impressive - the whole city has an aura associated with it. And different neighborhoods are so diverse, but never out of sync, and they fit in gloriously to give an unique character to the city.

One can call it the city of museums. Apart from the better known Louvre or d'Orsay, there are innumerable ones spread all over the place. I could only spare half a day for Louvre, and a couple of hours for d'Orsay. Everyone now knows about Louvre thanks to that book and the movie, and it indeed is as glorious, if not more. Mona Lisa is surprisingly small, and the center of attraction. Taking photos is not allowed in the room, but people click on incessantly, while guards try their best to refrain people from doing that. Each section can take hours to explore fully, if one wants to even glance through the details - which was not obviously possible for frantic trip like mine. The all to famous glass pyramid at the entrance, to be very frank, looks kind of gimmicky, but at night, it glows softly, resulting in a nice ambiance. D'Orsay is a treasure trove for impressionist paintings, and a local artist suggested me to visit it even before Louvre. He was probably right. It is much smaller, built in a old railways station - and the settings reflect that fact. The galleries are lined up with creation of modern masters - and gradually it doesn't seem that small after all. Another museum I hurried through was Center Pompidou, which is a weird building with a weirder front facade and weirdest objects of art inside, like a glowing red rhinoceros.

And then Paris is also a city of magnificent architectural landmarks, from quite old to not so old, from the grand Notre Dame to the chic Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel tower glows at dark - brightening up the entire skyline. The view of the thriving Champs-Élysées and the city beyond that from the top of the majestic Arc de Triomphe is an experience by itself. There are huge palatial buildings, often with golden domes. There are sculptures on the streets, St. Micheal's statue at Latin Quarters was one of the more interesting ones I saw. And the infamous red windmill at the not so inviting night club district is a landmark in its own right.

And finally, Paris is also a city of culture. There are used book stores on the sidewalk, artists at work in the open air at Montmartre, which is little hill inside the city. There artists offer to get your portrait done, and after a while I could not refuse. The proud painter pointed out that even Picasso started off with making portraits on these streets, so with some luck, he too can get there. The people in general was very helpful, the old couple at the overnight train from Venice, was very enthusiastic about making me well acquainted with their beloved city. On the streets, I could always find someone to give me directions, and once I did not even had to ask. An old lady, seeing that I am struggling with the map, stepped up and asked if I need any help in crisp English. The metro network is really helpful too, the trains are very frequent - the only awkward part sometime is the connection between different lines, often I had to walk miles through the underground maze, going up and down multiple times, just to go from one line to another in the same station, shown by just a dot on the map. One of the lines, the newest one is fully automated, with no human driver on the train - one can stand right in front and see the train speeding through the dark tunnels!

Switzerland was all about enjoying the stunningly scenic vistas, Italy was about getting a feel of history - Paris was just soaking in the sights and sounds of wonderful city, a perfect blend of past, present and future!

The photos are in my picasaweb page, as always.

(This concludes my weeklong frantic Europe backpacking trip experience. However, I was in CERN for a couple of weeks, and ended up going to Geneva all too often. I should post my CERN and Geneva experiences sometime soon.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Europe Travelogue Part 6: Chamonix

This was a day trip from Geneva even before I started out for this week long trip of mine - but somehow never got around to post it before. So this slight anachronism, and a break from cityscape.

Chamonix is a little village in the valley just under French Alps, and the Aiguille du midi cable car takes one upto a height of over 3800 meters, from where snow covered peaks seem just so close. Just to give a perspective of that height, Mont Blanc, standing next to it, with all its majestic glory, is only around 4800 meters tall, and Mount Everest is 8848 meters, so the cable car (and a little elevator ride) indeed takes one at significant high altitude. And from there, its completely a new world, with pure white snow all around and peaks rising up from everywhere.

The other exciting ride is the Montenvers train to Mer de Glace glacier. Initially the train, climbing up through narrow winding tracks took one right upto the glacier. Then the glacier receded a bit, so they built a cable car to take one down to the glacier. However, the glacier receded further, and now one has to walk a while to get to it. This is probably the cleanest signature of global warming I have ever seen!

The photos are here.

(I would be wrapping up this trip with Paris next)

Europe Travelogue Part 5: Venice

Venice would not have been much different from any other Italian city, if not for the canals and life along them. The city is almost entirely dependent upon them for transportation - there are water buses which ply in fixed routes, water taxis which can be hauled to go wherever one wants, and then there are the Gondolas. While prohibitively expensive, they look very inviting in their glamorous decor and royal ambiance. They take one around a tour of Venice, starting from the main Grand Canal to the narrow lanes and bylanes - passing under little bridges connecting big old houses and palatial buildings. Somewhere on the way, one passes under the bridge made famous as the "Bridge of Sighs" by Lord Byron - passing from the courthouse to the prison, apparently the prisoners last time saw daylight from that bridge. Rialto bridge, giving a pretty good view of the Grand Canal is another well known landmark.

The centre of Venice is undoubtedly the St. Mark's Square. The impressive basilica is the major attraction, and one can get a birds eye view of the square and the city and the little islands from climbing up the bell tower. The square itself is full of pigeons, and they don't hesitate to sit on people's palms if tempted with food.

Venice wrapped up the Italy part of my trip - and it was onward to Paris then. The Venice pictures, like all others, are in my picasaweb album.

(French Chamonix, a beautiful little village, in the foothills of Mont Blanc, is next)