The Bhatnagar prizes 2015

The Bhatnagar prizes [^] for 2015 have been announced [(.PDF) ^]. The selections seem to be, as usual, the “safe” ones. So there can’t be much to comment on, on that count.

So, let me try to squeeze out something interesting and relevant from that bit of the news.

As far as I am concerned, the first interesting bit is this: I “know”—i.e. have run into and exchanged a few words with—one of the awardees. Exactly once, at a conference. The fellow in question is Dr. Mandar Deshmukh (2015, Physical Sciences). From the presentation he made at that conference, it was quite clear (at least to me) that he was doing some neat science. While making his presentation, he had assumed that informal and abstract air which by now has become typical for the relatively younger IIT Bombay graduates. I do like this change in them. Earlier, i.e. in my times and earlier, they used to be far too arrogant, pompous, or self-assuming. Even in their informal presentations. Important to me, Deshmukh carried the same air of informality (of a kind of friendliness, almost) during the in-person chat that I had with him on the side-lines during the buffet lunch. Why, he even casually asked me (as others) to “drop by [his] lab and have a look at the equipment any time,” adding that it was “interesting,” with a glint in his eye. Hmmm… Turns out that he has continued doing “interesting” things. (This conference was in 2009 or 2010.) As far as I am concerned, this selection seems quite right. So, congratulations, Dr. Deshmukh!

The second interesting bit is that Deshmukh was the second person present at that conference with who I had chatted during lunch and who eventually got the Bhatnagar award. The first person was Dr. Umesh Waghmare. (Yet another younger IIT Bombay alumnus.)

To go on to the third interesting bit, let me note that it was not a very “official” kind of a conference. It was just a symposium arranged to honor Professor Dilip Kanhere, on the occasion of his retirement as a Professor of Physics in the (now S. P.) University of Pune. There were no brownie points to be scored from this conference; people got together only out of respect for the retiring professor—and of course, out of the love of the research topics. Important to note: People had dropped by from as far places as the USA, Germany, Sweden, etc. (I came to know Prof. Kanhere through Web searches; he had just founded the Center for Modeling and Simulation; I was interesting in anything combining computation and physics. I approached him; he allowed me to attend his classes and generally roam around in the CMS for a while.)

So, the interesting bit is the knack that Prof. Kanhere evidently has to gather together some talented (and/or interesting) people. [I don’t mean to refer to me here.] I don’t know why not every professor succeeds doing that. But some professors do have this knack. Talented folks somehow “smell” such people and almost as if “by default” gather around them. Consider Kanhere’s PhD students (or research associates), and compare them to any randomly selected PhD from any department at the S. P. University of Pune during the same time; Kanhere’s students (and associates) stand out. The current director of CMS, Anjali Kshirsagar, is his PhD student; many others have had post-docs at good institutes abroad, which, incidentally, is a good benchmark for Indian universities (other than the IIXs). This point is important.

Even while working within the “parameters” of this third-class university (I mean the S. P. University of Pune), Kanhere managed to inculcate the right kind of intellectual spirit, and culture in his group, why, even some simple manners and rules of etiquette that researchers from the first-world almost always follow, and a normal guy in the S. P. University of Pune is blissfully (or more likely: arrogantly) unaware of. (Ditto for almost any other Indian university.) At least as far as I am concerned, if I know that if someone has been a student or post-doc with Prof. Kanhere, I immediately know that my emails will not only be read but also replied—and more important, its contents would be thought about before the reply is made (and perhaps also afterwards). It’s something like the atmosphere at iMechanica that Prof. Zhigang Suo has managed to create and maintain. How do some professors succeed doing such a thing regardless of the environment surrounding them? [Compare other blogging fora and iMechanica, on this count: the overall and general civility of the interaction present at iMechanica, combined with the informality. The fact that iMechanica is based at Harvard must have helped to a great extent, but this one factor alone doesn’t explain the outcome.]

So, how is a better atmosphere created? I have no idea. But the point especially relevant to us Indians is: it requires almost no money, almost no hard-work. (Well at least, not the futilely draining kind of a hard-work). And yet, only a few professors ever manage to accomplish that. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. [As a professor myself, I am too new to know if I could manage to do that. But my point is: I would like to at least try.]

There is a value in such things. Kanhere’s students (and the people who had gathered for his retirement symposium) happened to be more or less the only people who (i) did not laugh at me when I said I am trying to derive a new view of QM, (ii) did not advise me to go read text-books within the first 5 minutes of my mentioning my published paper (or in the first email (if at all a reply came forth)), and (iii) did not try to avoid me the next time we ran into each other. Indeed, as far as the in-person interaction goes, the only people who have ever thoughtfully and informally commented on my QM ideas were Kanhere’s students. One of his students (then a professor himself) emphasized the complex number nature of the \Psi wave-function, and also brought home the fact that the name random variable is a misnomer, it actually being a function. Another student of his (again himself a professor) emphasized the conjugate nature of energy and time, not just of the momentum and position; see John Baez’ coverage here [^]. He also pointed out quantum chemistry to me; I didn’t know about it (“just substitute it in place of t; you will get it”). This, while people were busy saying to me that they won’t read a paper if it was about QM and written in MS Word, and that I should send the paper to a journal. (If they themselves couldn’t bother to even read the paper, why would they think that a journal could accept it? Blank-out. As far as they were concerned, the fact was that I myself had approached them, and so in that very act, I myself had put them in a higher, advising, position; they would therefore be generous in dispensing advice; the matter ended there as far as they were concerned.)

Reading the post in the plain, it’s impossible to convey what value mere “emphases” can be, because the issues are so generally well known. The point is: within the context of that particular discussion, within the context of that particular cluster of ideas, it’s just this one word emphasis that really gives you the clue. … It’s been more than five years since these comments, and I still marvel at how they got me out of my conceptual difficult spots with these off-hand but thoughtful remarks. (Their clarifications and even casually expressed emphases continue to help me, including during my recent-most brain-storming that I noted just yesterday in the previous post.) Why would only Kanhere’s students do that, despite the individual differences between them?

Thus, to use a cliche, some people manage to bring people together in such a way that 1 and 1 does not become 2; it becomes 11. How do they manage to do that? I have no idea.

How was it that Bohr managed to attract so many talented people to his institute? It is especially relevant to point out to Indians that this “institute,” when it was founded, had only one professor—Bohr himself—and a couple of other support staff. The visitors (like Heisenberg) would be lodged in a top-floor “room” (one having a low slanted roof), in the same building. Why, even as recently as in the late 1990s, the “University Department” at Utrecht had a faculty strength of less than 10—that’s roughly the time when Professor Gerard ‘t Hooft got his Nobel. The “Department” was that small; yet he would manage to attract talented folks from all over the world, i.e., even before the time that he got his Nobel. Sommerfeld had this same knack; look at the list of the PhDs he graduated and the post-docs he nurtured. For an example of the more recent times and from the US, look at the list of John Wheeler’s PhD students and post-docs: Richard Feynman and Kip Thorne count among his PhD students. Kip Thorne himself has been attracting an incredibly large pool of PhD students, post-docs and research associates.

Why do some people succeed attracting talent? Are there any lessons we can draw and learn? Let us not focus only on the Nobel laureates. Really speaking, winners of the Nobel prizes, or their mentors, do not make for a good, fitting example for us Indians. It cannot. Precisely because the achievement in question is so great, the difference in the perceived levels so large, that we Indians actually end up doing is to silently dismiss such instances away without any actual consideration. We cannot draw any lessons from them, for the simple reason that the very possibility of building the super-high-end intellectual hubs is completely surreal to us. [And, our friends and kins in the USA, esp. those in the San Francisco Bay Area, specialize in continually reminding us of the impossibility.]

So, let’s lower our bar a bit. I don’t mind doing that. But lowering the bar doesn’t mean we stop attempting. We can—and must—ask: is it possible to replicate, say, Professor Kanhere’s success, even if Wheeler’s example would be completely surreal to us? Is it possible to create an environment in which a prior PhD failure, esp. the one in engineering (and that too from a US university) runs into a physics professor, and says something using some stupid halting words which effectively convey: he wants to reformulate the foundations of QM. He says that, and still the physics professor doesn’t laugh it away right then and there? Is it possible to create this kind of an environment? Not just at an IIX, but also within the lowly S. P. University of Pune? Yes, it is possible; it has happened. … Is it possible that future Bhatnagar recipients flock together for what basically is just a “send-off” function of a non-IIX professor? Yes, it is possible; it has happened.

And, if such things are possible, then, the next question is: what precisely does it take to make it happen? to replicate it? I would like to know.

Over to you all.

[And, in the meanwhile, congratulations to the fresh Bhatnagar awardees once again, esp. Dr. Deshmukh.]


A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “yeh dil aur un ki nigahon ke saaye”
Music: Jaidev
Lyrics: Jan Nisar Akhtar
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

 

[E&OE]

 

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  1. Pingback: The Infosys Prizes, 2015 | Ajit Jadhav's Weblog

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