Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Ludwig van

One doesn't have to read Anthony Burgess or watch Kubrick to be driven to madness by Beethoven's 9th:

"The magic power re-unites all that custom has divided,

All men become brothers under the sway of thy gentle wings"

Lucky for me, I managed to borrow Herbert von Karajan's rendering of Beethoven's symphonies from a friend before he left for India. Nothing lifts your spirits better in moments of solitude!

Mildred Rogers

There's one like her in all of our lives, isn't there?

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

From Of Human Bondage (Chapter XLVII)
At last, in a small room, Philip stopped before The Lacemaker of Vermeer van Delft.
"There, that's the best picture in the Louvre. It's exactly like a Manet."
With an expressive, eloquent thumb Philip expatiated on the charming work. He used the jargon of the studios with overpowering effect.
"I don't know that I see anything so wonderful as all that in it," said Hayward.
"Of course it's a painter's picture," said Philip. "I can quite believe the layman would see nothing much in it."
"The what?" said Hayward.
"The layman."
Like most people who cultivate an interest in the arts, Hayward was extremely anxious to be right. He was dogmatic with those who did not venture to assert themselves, but with the self-assertive he was very modest. He was impressed by Philip's assurance, and accepted meekly Philip's implied suggestion that the painter's arrogant claim to be the sole possible judge of painting has anything but its impertinence to recommend it.
I wish more days were like this; when one could read, reminisce and introspect with absolute impunity :-)

Saturday, 13 December 2008

People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening

Excerpt from engaging editorial by Shekhar Gupta in the Indian express earlier this week:

Any number of illiterate emails and SMSes now float around, not merely cursing politicians, but spreading utter falsehoods about the Constitution and laws. There is one, for example, that says that our Constitution (article 49-O, it specifically says) entitles us to go to a polling booth and say we do not want to vote for anyone, and if the number of such votes is higher than votes polled by the leading candidate, the election will be set aside and nobody will be elected. So that is the way to fix the political class which, realising that, has kept that article under wraps. Now most of us passed our class X Civics a long time ago, and God alone knows how, so let’s not question anybody’s knowledge of our Constitution. But none of the thousands of very well-educated, rich, successful, respectable people through whom this silly mail has passed and been forwarded, have bothered to check that venerable document. For, if they did, at least one myth would have been set at rest: Article 49 deals with some thing very important, but it is not the right of negative vote, but the protection of our monuments.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Refreshing change but..

The first draft of the long overdue Administrative Reforms Commission is out. It is remarkably puzzling that the UPA government took this long to deliver on a promise they made ages ago. Unfortunately it took an catastrophe of the magnitude of the Mumbai attacks to set the wheels rolling. While a glance through the key points does encourage optimism, I wonder whether a review held as late as after 14 years of service isn't a bit too late. In fact, as the exact words go "the first review at 14 years would primarily serve the purpose of intimating to the public servant about his or her strengths and shortcomings, while the second review at 20 years would mainly serve to assess the fitness of the officer for further continuation in service".

What is the basis for 20? Why not a shorter period, say 5 years? There are many such questions which pop up as one goes through the provisions. Nonetheless, in the spirit of things, it is a step in the right direction. Der aaye par durust aaye (hopefully!)

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The premature birth anniversary of J. Willard Gibbs

Today was the last lecture of 10.40, the dreaded Thermodynamics course of the MIT first year graduate curriculum in Chemical Engineering and a day of custom. The course, while evolving in details over the past years, has retained its capacity to inculcate a perpetual sense of fear and delirium across the class throughout the semester. Its apparent level of difficulty can be traced back to (or blamed upon) exclusively one man in the history of thermodynamics- Josiah Willard Gibbs (partners in crime include G. N. Lewis, James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann :P). While mechanical and civil engineers revolve their lives around trivial heat pumps and thermodynamic cycles and while physics majors possibly escape the classical approach (most certainly the thermodynamics of solutions which is Gibbs area), possibly chemistry grad students are the only other sorry souls who have to endure the abstruse pain of Gibbs' calculus of thermodynamics and his geometric phase equilibria ideas.

But I like Gibbs. He is one of those towering figures in American Science (preceding giants like Feynman, McClintock and even G.N. Lewis) who's work was so original and ahead of its time that it evoked the interest of very few people in Gibbs' lifetime. It took a scientist of the greatness of Maxwell to immediately understand the significance of Gibbs' idea of the U-S-V surface (in this, they are almost like the Einstein-Eddington pair). Gibbs was a solitary figure who remained in the Yale campus all his life and produced an astoundingly rich body of work. Personally, the most significant aspect of Gibbs to me is that he made seminal contributions to both classical and statistical thermodynamics theory.

Back to 10.40 and today's lecture. Jeff Tester, the main instructor of the course is one of those classicists who revels in the joy of teaching this course which has been meticulously designed by him and his predecessors over the years. He filled his lectures with romantic connections to the historical development of the subject (one unfortunate consequence of this fact is that he was as abstruse as his idol Gibbs in some regard, but then this being his last year at MIT, one could overlook his indulgence) and his reverence to the likes of Carnot, Clausius, Gibbs, Boltzmann and Lewis. So as the custom goes, the last 10.40 lecture is marked with the celebration of Gibbs' birthday, although the actual date is in February. Legend has it that Bob Reid (Tester's predecessor as the 10.40 instructor and also incidentally Tester's PhD advisor) used to dress up as Gibbs to the lecture that day (tweed suit with flannels and all) and deliver his lecture in a New Haven accent. Tester did no such thing (though I think he could have pulled it off) but brought the customary cake (see picture) and tried to make sure fears were alleviated (or atleast momentarily forgotten) before the final exam week!

Most of the text is quite readable but for those who're curious about the formulae:
1. Bottom, top: The Gibbs Fundamental Equation in differential form
2. Bottom, bottom: The Gibbs Phase rule
3. Top, left: The fundamental statistical mechanical relation between the Helmholtz free energy and the canonical partition function.
4. Top, left: The kth Legendre transform of a first order homogenous function.

That's it for now until exams I suppose!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Midnight ramble

As a student of science, there are a number of times when I feel confronted with a frightfully overwhelming feeling; a cursory glance at the various monthly journals that are displayed in any MIT library is enough to digest the sheer rapidity with which different areas are progressing. One wonders if one can make any significant contribution in an era of such stupefying complexity where progress is being made, both at the core and the interfaces of various disciplines, at breakneck speed.

These experiences instill humility but at times challenge your confidence. However, there are reassuring times too. Times when you suddenly find yourself understanding a particular idea faster than your colleagues and have the good fortune of helping them out (and vice versa), a moment during an incomprehensible physics seminar when you are suddenly able to relate to a particular concept and integrate it with pre-existing knowledge. hours of pen-paper algebra leading you to a completely unanticipated wonderful result staring at you like a beacon in a storm- all of these replenish the elixir in the staggering spirit when it's weary of the world.

Enough of the indulgent ramble. What prompted me to put up this post was a lecture on TED by the famous neuroscientist V S Ramachandran which somehow captures the simplicity that lies behind profound ideas capable of really making a difference and causing a paradigm shift in our understanding of things. Highly recommended to anyone aspiring leave behind an original idea in this world! :-)

Monday, 8 December 2008

Random political thoughts

I have, like every other insignificant thinking Indian, gone through the successive emotional phases that followed the terrorist attacks that shook Mumbai on 26.11. The initial anger intensified into helpless frustration as I stuck to the news website during those forty-eight hours, the mind feeling restless and sombre as the battle with the terrorists went on. The frustration then funneled into a call for desperate action and all reason was momentarily abandoned as the blind heart responated with the vox populi - "Enough is Enough", notwithstanding the embarrassing dramatization that the Indian media resorted to (Indian Express perhaps being an exception) and is continually on display. Later, the mind pulled back its senses and all that it could see was repeated stagnant rhetoric on every other talk show and every other opinion article. I had my own thoughts on the matter but then, what was their worth?

As usual, there has been constant bashing of our neighbours on this matter. Just read news items from either side of the border and one can at once infer the surge of nationalistic pride that result post such catastrophies when fingers are pointed. The case of Pakistan is quite unfortunate - its economy being in shambles (inflation close to twenty-five percent), its internal security being as bad as that of India (if not worse), its crackpot military establishment working against the interest of the state, the civilian government of this fledgling democracy is in dire straits at the moment. To call them weaklings is a platitude - the fact that ther President feels compelled to write such an article in NY times is a candid testimony of their hopeless situation.

Amidst all this frenzy, the Indian administration has to decide on its course of action. As Raja Menon put it in a recent interview, India and the US have to save the Pakistani Civilian government from another military takeover. Any military move from India, at this moment might drive Pakistan back into Musharraf's hands (his mouth seems to have opened again). Lalit Mansingh constantly keeps emphasizing the importance of diplomatic pressure, and while this has not quite worked in the past, I cannot but help agreeing with his stance, given that we're dealing with an infant civilian government and given that it is in our best interests for Pakistan to develop a democratic stability.

My book to bedtime currently is "Freedom at Midnight" by Lapierre and Collins. I cannot help but feel with a sense of irony that Jinnah's dream, one that he achieved in the nick of time while fighting tuberculosis, has degenerated into a failed state caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Ogden Nastiness

If you'd ask me to take a call I'd say,
that vintage leather-bound books,
Are birthday gifts superior
to trinkets and worthless coffee mugs.

Often though there are shades of gray,
beneath the glowing leathery looks.
Be sure to check the interior
for pages punctured by literary bugs.


Sorry if the degree of imitation is shameless and unbecoming :-). There are a million escapes from Thermodynamics at the moment, all of which are extremely inviting.

Friday, 5 December 2008


I plead guilty for not putting up a single post since coming to grad school. There hasn't been much I have felt compelled to write about and for whatever I have felt for, leisure has been scarce. Now that I think of the past, I never wrote in solitude. If I ever gave the impression of being a lone thinker trying to arrive at the truths of the world by being violently original, it was probably a farce that my subconscious played with me. It was a farce that thankfully did not consume me. Whatever I have written, it is with people in my mind - people I know, people I love and people whom I can feel at home with.

MIT has been a good experience till now. With the exception of the heavy academic workload that can sometimes stress one out, I love every part of being in this wonderful campus - the infinite corridor, the libraries, the free food, the coffee shops, harvard square, the charles river and downtown Boston. I hope it gets better with the semesters to come.

My research area and advisor have been finalized (almost). I would be working in what my group refers to as 'Computational Immunology'. Broadly speaking, the work would involve using theoretical frameworks rooted in statistical physics to understand adaptive immune response in organisms like you and me. In the immediate future, that would involve two things- learning a lot of physics and learning a lot of biology - I'm looking forward to both.

Social life took a sharp change from the IIT setting and it looks like it has equilibriated once more. 'Change', as it is understood, becomes less prominent as one gets older. The only constant companions I am looking forward to at MIT are the corridors, the bookshelves and the pebbles on the riverside. The others will come and go, take a part of me and leave me a part of themselves.

A lot of memorable things happened this semester beyond academics - Sailing in the Charles with Varun while the weather was still kind, the wonderful Clay Memorial lecture at Harvard on the life of Euler, the de-stressing 4$ movie screenings on weekends (A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and Forrest Gump), Henry V, 'Into the woods', MIT rendering of Beethoven's Eroica (where I return from to type this post) and the wonderful trip to Purushottam's at Baltimore.

The semester's about to end in a couple of weeks. My near and dear ones in Cambridge will leave me alone to face the winter's wrath during Christmas.