Friday, October 23, 2009
From today's Times of India
Where’s My Nobel Prize?
We in India have to acknowledge talent as a source of inspiration, not resentment
Chetan Bhagat The recent news of a person of Indian origin winning the Nobel prize while based abroad sparked off a series of discussions at home. “Why don’t we win Nobel prizes here?” became the question of the week. The standard points were raised: we don’t have the facilities, too much government interference, the selection process is rigged, the prize committee is racist and, finally, who cares about the Nobel anyway (of course we do, that’s why we discuss it). Like all media stories, this one too will die soon. However, maybe it is time to look at the core issue: why India doesn’t excel on the world stage on a fairly consistent basis. We don’t win a significant number of Olympic medals, we don’t create global brands, our IT industry is essentially a job transfer model but we haven’t created even one Google, Facebook or Twitter. (Of course, there is plenty for Indians to be proud of otherwise, so please don’t jump on me because of my observations.) The real issue comes down to the treatment of talent in our country. So, what is talent? Talent refers to a special ability and aptitude that give people an edge in a particular field. In sport, science, films, business or the arts, people who dominate the world stage all have a gift that makes it easier for them to excel. Of course, along with talent there is preparation, hard work and a certain amount of luck required to achieve success. However, talent is usually a necessary ingredient. Talent is rare, and randomly distributed across the human population, irrespective of pedigree, connections or wealth. Some may call talent an unfair gift. However, it is talent that allows ordinary people to come up in life. Otherwise, rich people would stay rich and poor people poor. Thus, this unfair talent actually makes the world fairer. However, we don’t put talent on the highest pedestal in our country. Talent’s stature is below that of someone with connections, hereditary entitlement, pedigree or even experience. If i were to tell you that an unknown boy from Agra will become the next superstar, versus a star’s son becoming the next star, the latter story is much easier to digest. Even in an IIT, a truly gifted young faculty cannot jump ranks and scales set by the system. And the people designing the system never took talent into account. Even when talent is identified, we are unable to train it, and find it difficult to reward it. It is difficult to say why we have this attitude, but there are many possible reasons. One, talent conflicts with the traditional Indian caste system. Two, Indian cultural values revere the older generation and its experience, and talent zooms past it. Finally, the ‘tall poppies syndrome’, an already existing term used in Australia and UK to “describe a societal phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are criticised or resented because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers”. Ask yourself, have you seen some of this in India? Maybe because so many dreams have been crushed in India, someone else’s success reminds us of our own pain. The US (only as a contrasting example, not recommending we become like them) has an opposite value system. Talent is respected, seen as something to be emulated. That is why they have teenage boy bands and college dropouts who open dotcoms as national icons. We don’t. There are grave negative repercussions for a community that doesn’t respect talent. It leads to a society where connected people do better than people with ability. It leads to a lot of talent being unused, a tremendous waste of a national resource. It causes frustration in the entire new generation as they see people with less capability doing better than them. It also reinforces the old Indian values of fatalism and the helpless-common-man theory. And it means India’s excellent people may not excel worldwide to the extent possible. So what can be done? Well, we definitely can do something – both at the macro organisational level and a micro individual level. At the organisational level, we have to let go of corporate hierarchies and the lifelong promotion ladders of government, particularly in talent-dependent organisations like R&D, companies requiring high innovation or sport. We have to make incentives in line with what attracts talent, as there is a global battle for it. Exceptional talent demands exceptional reward. We have to take away the moral judgement associated with rewarding talent. Just as it is morally okay for a rich man’s son to be rich, a person with talent also deserves to do really well. Change needs to happen amongst us, at the individual level as well. We have to acknowledge that talent exists, and we need to respect it. Frankly, isn’t it better a talented person gets rewarded than a minister’s son? Talent shouldn’t cause resentment, it should become an inspiration. I think the young generation is already on board with that. It needs the older generation’s support to make this change in values. It may be difficult, but it is worth it. Because if we do become a talent-driven country, we will become a more progressive nation, utilise the new generation’s skills properly, become a fairer society and, along the way, win a few Nobel prizes too.
Tax us to fight economic crisis: Rich Germans
Berlin: Some rich Germans have launched a petition to call for the resumption of a wealth tax to help the country bounce back from an economic crisis, because, as one said, he had “a lot of money I do not need”. The text, posted on the internet at www.appell-vermoegensabgabe.de, has been signed by more than 40 people who want to convince the government of newly reelected Chancellor Angela Merkel to raise their taxes. For retired doctor Dieter Kelmkuhl, 66, it is time the wealthy came to the aid of their country. He reckons that if the 2.2 million Germans who have personal fortunes of more than $750,000 paid a tax of five percent this year and next, it would provide the state with 100 billion euros. Kelmkuhl got the idea when Berlin stumped up billions of euros to save banks and give the recession-hit economy a boost. “It made me mad to think that we suddenly found all this money for the banks, money that we did not have before for urgent programmes like education and the environment,” the left-of-centre weekly Die Zeit quoted him as saying. The former doctor would like Germany to have its own version of the the US group United for a Fair Economy (UFA), which includes around 700 wealthy US residents, according to the left-of-centre daily Tagesspiegel.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
She sold vegetables and her son grew up at a home for destitute children. But Subhashini Mistry still went on to set up a hospital that treats thousands of patients for free. They just call her Ma — a woman with a mighty heart. Prithvijit Mitra reports
Subhashini Mistry treads gently on the lawn, searching for weeds and undergrowth that she deftly plucks out from under the cycas trees. Bending low, she caresses the petals and waters the potted plants. But every once in a while, she instinctively turns around to take a proud look at a three-storey building overlooking a little patch of green that’s come up in the middle of nowhere. That building is, first, a miracle. A testimony to the 72-year-old widow’s grit, determination and impossible altruism; it’s also a hospital. The name, Humanity Hospital, couldn’t have been more apt. Because healthcare is for free here, along with lots of love and affection. The hospital at Hanspukur, on the southern fringes of Kolkata, was set up 13 years ago by Subhashini and her doctor son Ajoy to ensure that no one in their largely impoverished village went unattended or uncared for. They have found 20 doctors who work for free. “If you hear her story, you too won’t have the heart to ask for pay for work done at the hospital,’’ said a doctor. “This is service like I have never seen before.’’ Subhashini’s story is a staggering account of what human will can achieve, of indomitable spirit, of a rise, phoenix like. It was in 1971, after her husband died — poor, ill, and without any money for treatment — that she vowed no one in her village would end up that way. But the dream was easier dreamt than brought to fruition. “The eldest of my children was seven and the youngest just a year-and-a-half when my husband died,’’ Subhashini said. “We didn’t have money for the doctor’s fees and he died without treatment. That day, I pledged no other woman in my village would go through what I did.” But the journey she embarked on was riddled with hardships and obstacles. She started by collecting vegetables from neighbours and selling them at a local market for a small margin. She saved from whatever little she earned. Her neighbours laughed at her and relatives felt she was out of her mind. “Two of my sons worked in a tea stall. We survived on boiled rice for years. I couldn’t even send them to school,” Subhashini recalled. “I knew my children had to go to school and at least one had to be a doctor, or else my dream would never come true. So, I decided to turn into a proper vegetable vendor, without depending on my neighbours.” Ajoy, the third son, looked the most likely candidate to help fulfil her dream. He was a brilliant student even as he grew up in a children’s home. “My mother could not afford to send me to school. But she wanted us to study seriously, which we did. I was initially not keen on taking up medicine. In fact, I studied chemistry because I felt that was my subject,” said Ajoy, now 47. It left Subhashini disheartened, but she willed herself to fight on — even without a doctor in the family. By then, though, both mother and son had saved up enough to buy a piece of land at Hanspukur. Slowly, neighbours, now beginning to admire her tenacity, contributed generously. “The land for Humanity Hospital was purchased in 1992, and construction began three years later. When the hospital was inaugurated in 1996, it was just a single-storey structure, barely 3,000 sq ft in area. But it came as a ray of hope for people in the Hanspukur-Bankrahat area,” Ajoy said. Ajoy changed track, too, and in 1990, after clearing the joint entrance examination, enrolled at Calcutta Medical College Hospital. He graduated a year before the foundation stone for Humanity Hospital was laid. With 35 beds and 13 departments — including general medicine, gynaecology, paediatrics, eye, surgery, immunology and cardiology — the hospital stands as the lone symbol of optimism in a neglected terrain where treatment was considered a luxury. It caters to more than 10,000 people, and patients travel from farflung villages like Shakharipota, Mahishgot, Kalmikhali, Kakdweep, Kalagacchia, Diamond Harbour, parts of East Midnapore and even Bangladesh. Nobody is refused treatment. And no money is ever asked for. Subhashini and Ajoy spend more than 16 hours at the hospital every day. She struts about the hospital like a protective mother hen, visiting each bed, holding hands and talking to patients. “For us, this is our world. The patients are like my own children,” Subhashini said. Ajoy, on his part, never regrets having chosen to dedicate his life for the cause of the poor. “I don’t know when I started sharing my mother’s vision. But it was pretty early in life,” he said. But there is no end in sight to the struggle that started in 1971. It’s a daily battle to keep the hospital running. Donors and sponsors have lent a helping hand. LIC Golden Jubilee Foundation, for instance, funded the construction of the second floor recently, but it’s never enough. Ajoy said, “At present, we need Rs 64,000 a month to run the hospital. If we have to augment the facilities, we would require Rs 3 lakh. We need more donors and perhaps some patients who can afford to pay basic charges.” On his mother’s suggestion, Ajoy helped 100 villagers get medical insurance, but this number is just a drop in the ocean. “We need more such schemes to make Humanity a bigger institution. But it will always cater to the poor and the neglected. Whatever the cost.’’ No one will doubt Subhashini or her son on this.
Friday, October 16, 2009
‘A little less nationalistic hero worship please’
— Venki Ramakrishnan
Iam distressed by the reaction to my comment about being deluged by emails from India, and realize I have inadvertently hurt people, for which I apologize. I hope people realize that I have no personal secretary and use my email mainly for work, so finding important communications became very difficult. I want to make it clear that I was delighted to hear from scientific colleagues and students whom I had met personally over the years in India and elsewhere, as well as close friends with whom I had lost touch. Unlike real celebrities like movie stars or people in sports, we scientists generally lead a quiet life, and are not psychologically equipped to handle publicity. So, I found the barrage of emails from people whom I didn’t know or whom I only knew slightly almost 40 years ago (nearly all from Indians) difficult to deal with. People have also taken offence at my comment about nationality being an accident of birth. However, they don’t seem to notice the first part of the sentence: We are all human beings. Accident or not, I remain grateful to all the dedicated teachers I had throughout my years. Others have said I have disowned my roots. Since 2002, I have come almost every year to India. In these visits, I have spent time on institute campuses giving lectures or talking to colleagues and students about their work, and stayed in the campus guest house. I have not spent my time staying in fancy hotels and going sightseeing without them. The people I visited, eg at the ICGEB in Delhi, CCMB in Hyderabad, the University of Madras or the IISc in Bangalore can vouch for this. Finally, at a personal level, although I am westernized, many aspects of culture like a love for classical Indian music or South Indian or Gujarati food are simply a part of me. The best way to take pleasure in someone’s achievement is to take an interest in their work and feel motivated to learn more about science. I remember reading about Gellman’s work as an undergraduate in Baroda, and, when he won the Nobel prize, rushing upstairs to tell my parents. It did not matter to me whether he was Indian or not. In my case, I am lucky to have had a combination of education, opportunities and a great team of co-workers to have made a contribution to an important problem. I am not personally that important. If I hadn’t existed, this work would still have been done. It is the work that is important, and that should be what excites people. Finally, there are many excellent scientists in India and elsewhere who will never win a Nobel prize. But their work is no less interesting and people should find out about what they do. My visits to India confirm that it has great potential and bright young students. A little less nationalistic hero worship will go a long way to fulfil that potential.
Ramakrishnan understands why Indians the world over are bathing in his reflected glory but he is keen to use the occasion of an interview with The Telegraph to urge them not to get too jingoistic.
“I don’t think they should make too much of it,” he says. “Fundamentally, it is not important that it was an Indian who did this.”
Now 57, he left India at 19 and lived in the US ....
He focuses on his science but he does have a life outside the lab. “I have lots of personal interests. I love music, I love bicycling and hiking and my wife and I went on a cycling trip in Norfolk last month. ”
He is vegetarian and tries out Gujarati and South Indian dishes when he has friends to dinner. “I like cooking occasionally.”
Will Ramakrishnan’s life now change beyond recognition? “I hope not. I wrote to a Swedish friend of mine, a major figure in the field of science, (and joked) ‘What have you guys done to me?’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry, you will be bothered for a little while and then life will be back to normal’.”
His computer has been clogged by unsolicited emails from Indians.
“I sometimes get the feeling that people in India think of it as some kind of sporting event that their man won but science isn’t like that,” he smiles.
He doesn’t want the Nobel to be seen in narrow, nationalistic terms. “It’s very bad. Science is done for the pursuit of knowledge. It is not done to represent your national team. It has no national boundaries whatsoever. This is the thing that people need to realise.”
He gives the example of his own lab in Cambridge, where he is the 29th Nobel Prize winner in an elite list that includes Crick & Watson, the pair that unlocked the double helix of the DNA. “My own lab has two Chinese, a Malaysian, a Canadian, an American, a German, it has had all sorts of people. And it’s actually fun because people from different countries come together, they have cultural exchanges, they learn more about each others’ countries and way of life. Science is a great international mixer, so the idea that it is a sort of cricket match where our team won — that simply is a wrong way of looking at scientific discovery.”
To be sure, he hopes the cause of science has received a boost. “It’s an absolutely good thing. I can think of one even better thing for young people, especially in India. It shows them you can study in India, get your basic education in India and you can (then) do whatever you want after that. That’s a very important message.”
He says: “Indians tend to be a little insecure and they should stop being insecure — I have visited India many times and I can tell you questions I get after my talks are as perceptive as anywhere else in the world, including places like Harvard or MIT. It’s perfectly fine to take pride that someone from their region has used their background and succeeded. That gives them a positive message that they can do anything that they want.”
He argues that “if India had 50 Nobel Prizes, they wouldn’t bother. For instance, in the US I was interviewed on the day of the Nobel Prize, it went into the major papers, news media and then they said, ‘Fine, another year when a few Americans have won Nobel prizes’, that was it. They did not have this almost exaggerated reaction. That comes from a sort of feeling of insecurity about their (India’s) standing in the world. But India is not the same as it was 50 years ago.”
He stresses: “Now many excellent scientists in India are doing really first rate work and it should not matter when the next Indian Nobel Prize is because they are doing very good work — that is what matters and the more you have this infrastructure, with good scientists within India, eventually someone will get a Nobel Prize for work done within India.”
He gives examples. “There are already people who are world class in India, for example C.N.R. Rao (who has worked mainly in solid-state and structural chemistry). He is an example of how you can do first rate international work within India. So I would say to Indians — you have it within you to do this (in India).”
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The role of education is to ensure that children become lifelong learners. Today, a narrow and stifling academic curriculum in most countries has led students to disengage themselves from the testing regime of the education system. Students are no longer intellectually robust. We need to create a critical mass of thinkers. True learning often takes place outside the classroom. I, therefore, encourage my students to excel in sports, arts, also recently we launched the Model UN, and so on.
What is your vision for the Doon School?
It is to create thinking individuals. I would request parents to come to us only if they want to develop their child’s character and creativity. On the way, we will also help the child to get decent grades. It is important to remember that your life is not over if your academic scores are not high.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Well more than my own children I’m amazed when I see the commitment levels in young Indians (which) is the real strength of India. I think as a country we have to empower them, to unleash their energies on problems.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Chandrasekhar opines that in pre-1930 days, there was a tremendous urge from the Indian Science community to deliver the best, to show the world that they though subjugated by British were also at par. And it bore fruit. Many of us drew the attention of the world. Post 1930, he observes, something strange happend and the downfall began. What was that? The seniors tried to cling to their position and the junior, younger scientists were not encouraged or allowed to grow!
Strong views. I looked for the biography on the web. Instead, I got some other. Let me put few lines from http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/apr252000/generalia.pdf
Chandra kept himself informed of what was happening in Indian science and was surprisingly well aware of the political scene – science politics that is. Although he was totally uninvolved in all this, he was ready to deal with administrators in order to help the deserving. Cases such as that of Smt. Janaki Ammal, wife of Ramanujan, may be well known. But there are many other obscure cases in which Chandra went out of his way to meet heads of institutions to make his recommendations. His efforts were not always rewarded nor were they universally appreciated. At least in one instance when he tried to recommend a scientist for promotion that was long overdue, he was told in no unequivocal terms that as a foreigner, he had no idea of how the Indian science machinery worked and was asked not to interfere. This hurt Chandra deeply. All the same, he did not stop helping others.
So, what Pathik Guha says may not be off the mark. Hope, it is corrected to a great extent or in the process of being corrected. Further quotes from this biography.
I met Chandra again in 1993 at his brother Balakrishnan’s house where he was staying on a private visit. We sat in the verandah watching the little garden. It was late afternoon, bright sunlight playing upon the flowers. As the day wore on, light faded and shadows lengthened. Chandra asked me to move closer to him so he could hear better. He looked tired. But, as usual, he asked me in detail about my research. Then he went on to discuss a composite picture of what he had done in recent years. He was satisfied that his work on Principia was progressing well. Then came Indian science – research institutions, universities. A short pause. He looked up with a tinge of melancholy and said, ‘You know the worst thing one could do to science? Use it for self promotion.... It is sad that people think I cannot see what is happening. For instance...’. His voice trailed off as he closed his eyes. ‘Another time, perhaps...’ he added in a whisper. Depression seemed to be coming on. It was time to change the subject. I started talking about science education, the need to communicate science in the proper manner, creating opportunities for the young, conveying the excitement of new developments through interaction with practising scientists. Chandra opened his eyes. He was alert now. ‘When you were a student, you met Sommerfeld,’ I said, ‘wasn’t that an important occasion?’ According to Kameshwar Wali, Chandra described this meeting as ‘the single most important’ event in his early life which launched him on a research career. Chandra sat up. His keen, piercing eyes were sparkling now. He said with emphasis, ‘Yes, indeed’. He kept nodding as I continued. ‘But how many students could have the good fortune of meeting someone like Sommerfeld? And how many would be prepared, as you were, to make use of such an opportunity? Yet, if we create the proper atmosphere and facilities, some motivated children may grow into good scientists, even great ones. Maybe, we will have another Chandra, who knows’. He looked at me wistfully, apparently moved, and asked, ‘Are you going to do that?’ ‘I would like to try,’ I replied. ‘If you do that,’ Chandra said, ‘I should like to come and see it’.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
"When the Secretary of the Nobel Committee called my son in London [ Images ], he said 'you must be kidding with me and trying to fool me," his father said.
The reason Venky thought so, the father explained, was that during this season when Nobel Laureates are selected, a lot of their friends make prank calls speaking in Swedish accent and trying to fool people.
"My son did not believe what he heard from the secretary until he spoke to the chairman of the Nobel Committee," he said. Nor did he.
The senior Venkatraman got phone calls from local news papers 'wanting to talk to his son who has got a Nobel Prize' late at night without knowing that the latter does not live in Seattle.
But he did not believe any of then until he asked them 'hundreds of questions' and was fully satisfied that his son actually got the Nobel Prize.
"A few hours later when Venky called his father to give him the good news, the senior told him that there was 'no excitement ' as he has already come to know about it.
"My son, who did not want to wake me up in the middle of the night, just laughed," he said.
The father described his son as well his daughter Lalita Ramakrishna, a professor at the Infectious Diseases Center at the University of Seattle Medical Center, who is more into research than medical practice as people leading a simple and ordinary life.
He said Venky does not own a car and goes to work in bicycle. "He keeps a low profile. He is very helpful to people, especially young people, and will help them whether in terms of giving advice for their studies and above all he is very friendly with people," he said.
"He always keeps a very low profile and that is how he has been since he was a child," he said.
Has his Nobel laureate son done anything apart from being steeped into research?
The father said that Venky and his sister have been avid bicyclers and love trekking.
"Venky would go up to 25 miles bicycling. He is very interested in nature. So is his sister," he said.
Both Venky and his sister, according to the father, have a benevolent streak. They both donate money to UNICEF, Ramakrishna Mission, of which their parents are great followers and to Doctors without Borders. Then he spills a secret.
"I do not think he is a very spiritually oriented person," he said in response to a question in the context of his son's philanthropy. "He just likes to help people."
CATCHING BRAIN SIGNALS
Interaction through telepathy possible
Washington: Researchers from the University of Southampton have shown that people can communicate with each other through the power of thought alone.
Brain-Computer Interfacing (BCI) can be used for capturing brain signals and translating them into commands that allow humans to control devices like computers, robots, rehabilitation technology, and virtual reality environments just by thinking about various actions.
Dr Christopher James, from the University’s Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, took the experiment a step further in the current study. The researchers aimed to expand the current limits of this technology, and show that brain-to-brain (B2B) communication is possible.
“Whilst BCI is no longer a new thing and person to person communication via the nervous system was shown previously in work by professor Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading, here we show, for the first time, true brain to brain interfacing.
In his experiment, one person used BCI to transmit thoughts, translated as a series of binary digits, over the internet to another person whose computer receives the digits and transmits them to the second user’s brain through flashing an LED lamp.
While attached to an EEG amplifier, the first person would generate and transmit a series of binary digits, imagining moving their left arm for zero and their right arm for one. The second person was also attached to an EEG amplifier and their PC would pick up the stream of binary digits and flash an LED lamp at two different frequencies, one for zero and the other one for one.
Although the pattern of the flashing LEDS is too subtle to be picked by the second person, but it is picked up by electrodes measuring the visual cortex of the recipient. The encoded information is then extracted from the brain activity of the second user and the PC can decipher whether a zero or a one was transmitted. The experiment, thus, showed true brain-to-brain activity. ANI