Thursday, August 16, 2007

Different Physics-views!

I still remember that day. There was this conference organized by our department at Jadavpur University and it featured talks by some big name Physicists, none perhaps more famous than Ashoke Sen. We were in our undergraduate days then - all dreamy eyed budding Physicists, and of course we attended all the talks, no matter how much we got out from them. And then we got hold of the famous man himself, asking him mostly naive and inane questions, which he patiently answered. Then we wanted a group photo taken with him - he was slightly embarrassed, but still obliged. That made our day - and for a long time that remained, and perhaps still remains a prized snap for us.

Kolkata Physics was mostly like that - all sweet, no sweat. At least for us. The only method of solving problems was to stare at them for a while and then writing out the solution - working out pages full of algebra was not "elegant". We honestly believed that every problem should have a simple and intelligent solution - others are not worth bothering about. The best way of doing Physics labs was to do the experiments without touching the apparatus once. And picking and choosing what we think we should read. Quantum Mechanics and Special Theory of Relativity were exciting - Optics and Acoustics were not. Electronics was simply not Physics, and instrumentation was below our dignity to talk about. Any self respecting Physicists should work on Theory - at least we all wanted to. Well, may be all that is a slight exaggeration - but one gets the picture. Physics was supposed to be elegant and big Physicists to be worshiped.

It did not take long after coming to United States to realize that attitude would not really work. While real Physics still may be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, to reach there one has to do a lot of dirty work. Working and reworking through obnoxiously long and ugly calculations and learning stuff which have very little Physics in them. And somewhere in the process - we lost that respect for the big and famous. Its not that I would not appreciate someone who is a great teacher or gotten some good results - but they would still remain mere mortals, as fallible as the guy next door, when they are not talking about Physics. I would not go to a colloquium just because some big name Physicist is talking, unless I have some amount of interest in what he is talking about. I would not go and talk to him just because he is so and so, unless I actually have something worthwhile to discuss.

I do not want to make a value judgement here. This summer, when I was in CERN, there was this bright kid from my undergraduate school, and he is working for his Ph.D over there in India. And I was almost feeling nostalgic - looking at him getting overwhelmed by the big shots - clicking photos, dying to talk to them, hanging onto every word they said. I could see how we did the same thing years back - and I could also see how we have cultivated this attitude of casual irreverence. The sense of wonder is still there - but it has been mostly replaced by what for the lack of a better word I would call professionalism. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is that what "America" did to me or was bound to happen anyway? I do not know.

11 comments:

Suvadeep said...

porlam .. sotti kotha sohoj kore likhechhis .. thanku !

dipthought said...

so you are a part of "we" too?!

Sujata said...

Very true... I felt the same when I entered the IT industry... I was in awe of people with heavy designations... I thought CEOs are to be addressed as 'Sir' only... now after almost 4 years in this industry, I know what they are made of... when i take interviews, i can understand both sides of the table... addressing people with their first names comes naturally...

Basu said...

I have been reading your posts on and off, but somehow never got around to commenting. But now, here I am!

Your analysis is very accurate and incisive (and I am talking about more that just this post). I am a tad amused by your restrained USA-philia. While the new-found love for all things American, blinds some so acutely that their judgement falters, your's has remained remarkably sound.

Which is why, I find this post an exception. I don't think you seriously believe that students in Jadavpur/Kolkata believe in just "writing down the answer" without a "lengthy" derivation? Actually quite the opposite is true. Our education system is all for mechanical cranking. I proudly recall that the best of our teachers (JKB, NB, DR, RB, SR, etc...) sometimes made us work out mind-numbingly long calculations at times (JKB in particular). Of course, they loved it if a short&sweet work-around existed, but thats fair, ain't it? After all physics IS elegant!!!

Also, I don't remember any good student from JU shying away from "dirty" physics per se. Avoiding electronics/optics was just a matter of avoiding instructors who did not measure up our expectations.
In fact I loved optics and spent more time reading Hecht, and later Born and Wolf, than anything else. If we had NB teaching electronics, we would loved it as much as QM! (Actually NB did teach that to chemistry students and I have it on record that at least one really bright student loved those lectures.)

Coming to point of the "Bigname-effect" in talk attendance. Sitting through incomprehensible/uninteresting talks is a part of our training as physicists. We learn to sit through talks, so that every subsequent talk is more accessible. I mean how else can one develop an interest if one does not listen to something in the first place?

As for the "idol-worshipping", although I don't remember many students doing it, I can believe that some did. But that hardly ever stopped anyone from being a good physicist. I mean, by way of idle chat with a bright physicist, one gets bright ideas at best and inspiration at the worst. That can't be so bad?

And finally about the casual irreverence. I can assure you it is not an exclusive preserve of Americans. I believe, after a couple of years as a grad-student who had to do some physics and a lot of donkey's work (like writing code, latex-ing, responding to referee reports- all of which is actually important) all of us develop that attitude. It is what one should call "being seasoned". I am sort of embarrassed to admit that I am less reverent of some of my profs that I initially was. Professionalism has more to do with one's responsibilities and less about one's attitude towards a "bigshot" in my opinion.

Anyway, it was a long comment. Point being, I think your last question (probably rhetorical) has a clear answer. America did not do it to you. This was bound to happen anyway. Thats what I think.

BTW, I am not offended, or anything, lest I have given you that impression. Nor do I intend to offend by way of this comment. Just ektu tarko korchhi aarki..I hope you dont mind?

ps: Aar byapok ghurchho to. Chhobi gulo bhalo hoeche.

dipthought said...

@Sujata

I have very little inlinking about how IT industry works - but nice to know its not much different.

Is not it amazing that you are already a "veteran" there, while we in academics would be looking for "jobs" (read: post doc) in not so distant future!

@Basu

Thanks for reading and actually starting a discussion.

Somewhere buried in my post was the admission, that I am exaggerating a bit - the examples were "limiting cases" may be. However that being said, I would still argue that we had this fascination for elegance and disdain for laborious stuff. Not every problem in life can be solved over a cup of "Cha" at "Milanda-s".

Our education system is all for mechanical cranking. I proudly recall that the best of our teachers (JKB, NB, DR, RB, SR, etc...) sometimes made us work out mind-numbingly long calculations at times (JKB in particular).

You can not be more right when you say this. However I do notice that you excluded one "name" from this illustrious list - I wonder its just an oversight or there is something more? Either way, lets not go into specifics.

There is a difference between say, deriving long textbook equations (which should be done once, I agree) and calculating real stuff. The mechanical cramming part of our system is mostly the former, and that is one big reason why people hated CU's examination system. Its the later I was talking about, which I am afraid I do not remember doing much over there (except at IACS, of course), and thats why it was a rude awakening coming here.

Also, I don't remember any good student from JU shying away from "dirty" physics per se. Avoiding electronics/optics was just a matter of avoiding instructors who did not measure up our expectations.
In fact I loved optics and spent more time reading Hecht, and later Born and Wolf, than anything else. If we had NB teaching electronics, we would loved it as much as QM! (Actually NB did teach that to chemistry students and I have it on record that at least one really bright student loved those lectures.)


I always heard this argument, only if Electronics was taught by someone better, but never actually knew about NB doing that. May be we should have just sat in those classes!
Most of us are indeed doing different amounts of "dirty" work now, as you can well understand. However in those days, we "knew" lot less.

Coming to point of the "Bigname-effect" in talk attendance. Sitting through incomprehensible/uninteresting talks is a part of our training as physicists. We learn to sit through talks, so that every subsequent talk is more accessible. I mean how else can one develop an interest if one does not listen to something in the first place?

Again, this is also about now and then. I have no regrets that I spent many a afternoons sitting in talks at JU/IACS, most of which were indeed way beyond my level of understanding. But then, those opened our eyes to what people are doing - so indeed, you are right. Unfortunately, it has become much more "specialized" now - I would not go to a talk which has no relevance to what I am doing and/or I know would not understand anything beyond the first few slides. I have heard incredibly muddled talks by famous people, including a "Swedish Prize" winner, who is now in prison for vehicular manslaughter!

The spirit of the post was not intended to be hypercritical - I did get a lot out of the my undergraduate experience - but rather I was kind of amused to feel the difference by looking at our young friend in CERN. And as I said, I do not and should not pass a value judgement - I am in no position to do so.

And, after coming back from Europe, I am starting to develop a mild US-phobia!

Basu said...

Well! the omission of the "name" is quite intentional really. Of course, that list reflects my personal taste and I never learnt anything "new" in his lectures. It would typically always be a semi-popular rephrasing of what I already knew. Of course I must say I really enjoyed the lectures though. There is nothing more comfortable than sitting through a lecture and realising that you know it :)

I dont remember the part of solving problems over "Cha" at "Milan-da". Most of my problem-solving happened at IACS actually. In fact I must add at this point that SR's attitude to doing physics might be jaundiced by its severe math-philia but his main point about reading the best books, and working through "hard" stuff (I mean Huang can be considered "hard" at UG level) holds a lot of water. I think there were people who encouraged doing calculations (actually ARM is also one of them, She made me do problems on the black-board!!).

But on a more gossipy note, there are UG students from JU going to CERN now!!! We have come a long way ahead!

outoftouch said...

I donot write very often. So pardon me if my ramblings appear a touch incoherant or ill thought out. By and large I agree with you, although I detest your choice of words on one particular occasion. 'Kolkata Physics' does not sound nearly as beautiful as 'Calcutta Physics'.

Now, trying to get one's picture taken with a well known figure (like Asoke Sen) might have been a little puerile (I can proudly claim that I was not a part of that endeavour, for no fault of mine); however it is not too far removed from trying to get one's book autographed by a famous colloquium speaker, something that is fairly common in the this part of the world between the Atlantic and the Pacific. That said, however, I do hear you. The point you are trying make, about appreciating somebody's work as opposed to worshipping the person, is taken. For example, at present if I am asked about some famous physicist I will either have something to say about his/her work, or I will be completely nonchalant about his existence (if I donot know enough about his/her work). Both of which would across as terribly irreverant to the Jadavpurian me of half a dozen years ago.

I am tempted to conjecture that it stems from the way our education system works. We have a system of elimination rather than nurture (this is natural given our population and the top heaviness of the system). As such we are forced to use every small trick which we perceive will give us an advantage in the short or the long run. This can range from cramming an inordinate ammount of useless information, to trying to use the examination system to our benefit (fairly or unfairly), to deception (hiding facts or spreading false information), to trying to be seen with highly regarded scientists, to trying to speak vaguely in order to feign knowledge about a subject (That this perception is often compeltely misplaced, is a different story altogether.). In short, we donot have the luxury of not knowing.

The fact that we picked and chose what to learn is, in my humble opinion, a good thing. I am reminded of a professor of mine who says "To do good Physics, you must first have good taste". And I agree with him. The problem is not what we chose to learn, but how we went about learning it. I think the trick lies not in spending endless hours at Milanda's trying to reconcile the inherent inconsistencies of quantum mechanics, but rather in trying to understand why creation/annihilation operators are useful. After all it is hard to imagine someone solving the measurement problem without knowing how to solve the hydrogen atom. As far as electronics and instrumentation are concerned, certainly no (self respecting) theorist should be made to learn them. Before I vex any of my experimentalist friends, let me clarify. I am not for a moment suggesting that these are useful, merely that their use doesnot extend to the whole community; the uninterested ones should be allowed to have their bliss of ignorance.

Basu, the discussion would have been a bit more transparent for a simple soul like me if either Deepak or you had actually cared mentioned a name instead of a missing one. However if my limited perception can indeed discern your 'missing one' correctly then I must say that I cannot agree more with you (Basu). In fact, I have had some unpleasant experiences in the past due to a similar admission on my part. I will not care to go into the details here. However, that said, I must add that such semi-popular style of lecturing does have its benefits. It is astonishing that every year our country, esp. Calcutta manages to produce a huge number of fairly efficient physicist from engineering rejects. I think it is important for the health of the intellectual community that a every year a few bright minds choose to to physics for the sake of physics, and not because they couldnot get into some coveted engineering stream. Now, you know it as well as I do that the joy of physics lies in bug fixing or leak checking. Donot get me wrong, I think it is very satisfying to see the curve move a millimeter closer to where you want it, after endless hours in front of the computer, but it is incredibly hard to express that excitment to a bunch of high school graduates. By the time that silver coating wears off, hopefully the rugged veins will start to appear more inviting for the brave. Unrequited hope, maybe; but in the world dotted with glittering six figure salaries, if cannot even give them hope, what do they have.

Basu said...

I completely agree with you that the inspirational value of semi popular expositions is immense. What I wanted to stress was that there were people at JU/IACS who made us see the "hard" part of science as well. Actually, even the omitted "name" did try his best in that department, but often his innate style would hinder progress n that direction. That being said, I have nothing but the highest regard for him as a teacher. His teaching has inspired scores of students after all.

I strongly disagree that theorists need not learn electronics/experiments. I think that such an unbalanced education is what leads to insufficient appreciation of the subject. One needs to know those things to do "good" theory, particularly in HEP. There is another not so frequently recognised use of learning such stuff. It has to so with unexpected applicability. I remember Rajesh Gopakumar 's talk abt some problem in string theory, where he used the "Star-Delta transformation" from circuit theory! I was amazed. One finds uses for such basic things in many unexpected places. Connections may indeed be frivolous most of the time, but every once in a while they reveal the very basic structure of a theory. I would think we should also be taught some bit of computer science, just so that we are up to date with algorithms and complexity. Much of that is relevant to Stat Mech for example.

outoftouch said...

@basu
I think we are in complete agreement about the unnamed person. Just to clarify, I was not in any way trying to undercut your argument, but merely pointing out another side. I absolutely agree that his style (natural or otherwise) oftentimes provided more inspiration than perspiration.

As far as your second point is concerned, I was not taking about experiments in general. After all physics is an emperical science. As such, a level of laboratory experience is necessary to do 'good' theory or experiment. Of course, the lab courses can be designed better, but that is the topic for another day. What I was talking about are the THEORY courses in electronics or instrumentation in particular. I agree with you in that some knowledge of basic instrumentation is useful for high energy theory, in particular phenomenology. Similarly for electronics and semiconductor physics/ some types of mesoscopic physics. But in the same vein one can argue that knowledge of field theory is essential for 'good' high energy experiments, dynamical systems for 'good' biophysics experiments and resolvent operators for 'good' many body physics experiments. Thus a course for using the software for calculating Feynman diagrams, molecular dynamics and a high level course in practical complex analysis should be a MANDATORY part of the undergraduate PHYSICS curriculum. I think not. The point being, it is more useful to cover the basic topics like Mathematical Methods, Classical Mechanics, Electromagnetism + Circuits, Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics very thoroughly with laboratory backup, than trying to do a whole lot things half heartedly, esp. when most these appeal to special interest groups.

About the star-delta transformation; what I am talking about is more about is more advanced than basic circuit theory. In any case this particular transformation is a well known result from graph theory. I am sure Rajesh Gopakumar is aware of that. I would venture to suggest that the analogy with circuits was probably for illustrative purposes. But, this however is mere conjecture.


CORRECTION : In my last comment the line ' I am not for a moment suggesting that these are useful...' should read 'I am not for a moment suggesting that these are NOT useful...'. Sorry about the typo.

basu said...

@out of touch
I don't think you are serious when you suggest that learning to use software for calculating feynman diagrams, molecular dynamics etc is at the same level as basic UG-level electronics/instrumentation? Electronics at the level of Malvino (or at least a significant fraction of it) is definitely something every physicist ought to know IMHO.It is something that lets us appreciate a huge part of the world around us teeming with silicon (no pun intended). That is one of the goals of doing physics-understanding what goes on around us. One may say that such appreciation is better left to engineers, but I will disagree. I think it is fair of say, a non-scientist to expect a physicist to be able explain how the CMOS sensor in his digital camera works, and I would be an ashamed physicist if I did not know the answer.

And about the "Star-Delta" example. It is an example. I would not know what Rajesh was "thinking". I know what he "said". And no, he did not mention any graph theory. Thankfully, for the undergraduate-level audience like me that knew "Star-Delta" but no graph theory...

dipthought said...

It was really inter sting to see this intense discussion going on - after all nothing else pleases a blogger more to see long comments! It really brought back memories of our Calcutta days (and not Kolkata days, thanks Abhishek - I wholeheartedly agree).

After such elegantly put forward arguments from both sides, I do not see how I can give a new insight. At the end of the day, it boils down to taste, and some of us would never develop the taste for some of the things discussed. No amount of persuasion would really change that!

And, please, lets not get into any discussions on "who must not be named" here. Next time we all meet, we can have that over a drink.