You know you are a chemist when…

… the advertisement displayed on a blog you frequent is this:

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Science Writing Workshops

Science writing workshops at IISER Trivandrum and IISER Pune.

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Source: Current Science

On imagination


I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

— J. G. Ballard


What is the good of curbing sensuality, shaping the intellect, securing the supremacy of reason? Imagination lies in wait as the most powerful enemy.

— Goethe


I have been thinking of imagination with reference to two movies. The first is the 1993 Tamil heist movie Thiruda Thiruda. It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, and the plot itself is a little iffy in my mind. But what set off this particular train of thought was the sequence in this caper story when the movie’s two protagonists – two burglars – along with the woman they save from committing suicide, get their hands on a big loot. Their joy on being in possession of such money is portrayed as a song. Vairamuthu’s mettle as a lyricist shines through here as the trio gush on screen about what they want from this newly-acquired money. This song is proof of what splendid magic human imagination is capable of.  Please have a listen.

I tried to translate the lyrics into English with my working knowledge of Tamil, and I knew I was coming up short. These are after all thoughts of wanting a brand new earth, a new sky everyday, twin moons, colourful twinkling stars and flowers that speak that I am attempting to constrain. That said, here are the concluding two paragraphs of the song in English, knowing all too well that I have taken away the beauty of the original. This translation is to show you some more of the things this trio desires.

panjap pasi poakka vaeNdum
paalaivanam pookka vaeNdum
saandhdhi saandhdhi endRa sanggeedham
sugam aendhdhi aendhdhi vandhdhu vizha vaeNdum

Want famine and hunger to go away
Want deserts to bloom
Want a song that is peace
to come flitting with its carriage of happiness

poanavai ada poagattum
vandhdhavai ini vaazhattum
thaesathin ellai koadugaL avai theerattum
theyvangaL indhdha maNNilae vandhdhu vaazhattum

Let bygones be bygones
Let that which is here, live
Let the boundaries of nations fade away
Let the gods descend to live on this earth


I am often reminded of that scene from The Italian Job (2003) when Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and the entire gang is standing atop the Alps celebrating their successful heist, discussing what they would do with their share of the loot. Everyone has plans for things to do with their money, except for Norton’s character. It’s another thing that he betrays his gang, but when he does get to live the big life, his house has the exact things his friends had dreamt of.

Here’s the scene that unfolds atop the Alps.

Left Ear (Mos Def): So come on, gentlemen, shopping list. Who’s doing what? Spare no dirty details.

John (Donald Sutherland): Come on, guys. Take a lesson from an old man. Don’t spend it. Invest.

Left Ear: In what?

John: In gold.

Left Ear: What are you getting, Rob?

Handsome Rob (Jason Statham): Ah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things you can get with a lot of money. You know, I’m just thinking about naked girls in leather seats.

Left Ear: Obviously. See?

Handsome Rob: Suppose I’ll get the Aston-Martin Vanquish. There’s not a lot a girl won’t do in the passenger seat of one of those things.

Lyle (Seth Green): I’m gonna get a NAD T-770 digital decoder with a seventy-watt amp and and Burr Brown DAC’s.

Left Ear: [at a loss] Yeah…

Lyle: It’s a big stereo. Speakers so loud, they blow women’s clothes off.

Handsome Rob: Now you’re talking!

Left Ear: Thirty-five million dollars, you can’t get more creative than that, man? I’m going to Andalusia. The south of Spain. Right over there. [points] Get me a big house, get me a library full of first editions, get a room for my shoes… What about you, Steve?

Steve Bendel (Edward Norton): I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.

Left Ear: You haven’t decided yet? Come on, man. Is it the mountain air? Just —

Steve: I liked what you said. I’ll take one of each of yours.

Left Ear: [Laughs] Well here’s to two of everything for Steve!

Much later in the movie, when the team is planning their revenge on Norton, here’s what Wahlberg’s character says to Norton’s. I find it very, very telling and symptomatic of what’s missing and what’s wrong with life in general.

You’ve got no imagination. You couldn’t even decide what to do with all that money, so you had to buy what everybody else wanted.

Sometimes I wonder if the predicaments we go and entrench ourselves in are the result of a woeful lack of imagination. Stay real, they say. But do we even know what is reality?


A few years back I was attempting to write a story. And as would be expected, I kept losing track of what I wanted my story to do over the course of the writing. I don’t seem to remember why, but to steer the story forward, I kept telling myself: Put in a monkey there. That was a supremely genius move. Not! Predictably, the monkey pranced around with my characters and a lot of fun was had. And not surprisingly, the story only remains in my head till date. The monkey was just all over the place. Maybe if I can refurbish a purpose for that monkey, I can have that story move from my head on to paper. Maybe. Does that mean Icarus should have been told what the Sun would do to his wax wings?

PS. A synthesis of thoughts old and new, some from my old blog, repurposed for this post.

Because language is an anal egg in need of one glorious u.

Because somedays are just like that. Your To-Do List sitting smugly atop your table smirks at you. You imagine it saying to you in a Krishnamurti-esque voice: Here’s the chasm between the observer and the observed, and, boy, are you screwed! (PS. I am disowning that To-Do List; it’s very uncouth!)

Because somedays the deliriously delightful wordplay is the only thing that makes sense to you.  “Contrary to Keatsian joy,” you spout, when someone asks how you are doing. And as is the wont, that someone suddenly remembers an appointment with the vet for his non-existent cat. Cats are evil anyway, you shrug. Except, if that someone were Schroedinger. In which case, the cat would have been a Keatsian joy.

Because language is really one anal egg in need of a glorious u. This discovery is coming home. This is the place where the exasperated you inevitably would have come. You rest, and take off again on journeys known and unknown until the inglorious you again meets the glorious you in the home that you made for yourself.

Because I am talking of Bob Hicok’s The Pregnancy of Words. Do read it, I can’t recommend it enough. To read Hicok say to have no clue what a natural disaster is when that disaster is us, feels like all the words that were yours have melted into a goo floating around in your head. And for some reason I can’t fathom, the only word – a loan word – that remains in my head is weltanschauung. It’s a word that sounds profound; so profound that the word itself might have a philosophy of its own. You sit back and wait. Weltanschauung doesn’t profer its pearls. You wait for the melt in your head to crystallise back into words that are yours.

Lessons learned from a 43-year long teaching career

Prof. Harold White is an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware, and is a proponent and practitioner of problem-based learning (PBL). Presented below is his lecture on the lessons he learned from a 43-year long teaching career at the university, presented on the occassion of his retirement from the institution.

I found Prof. White’s lecture very good food for thought. He makes ten points over the course of his lecture as the lessons he gleaned from his teaching career. Not in the least being impudent here, but somehow all of those ten takeaways seem like things a teacher just ought to know. But then, who am I kidding? As I sat listening to his video, I realised there were things in what he said that I learned only because I taught. Not because I would teach someday.

I went into teaching after a self-imposed sabbatical of teaching myself philosophy. I had workable (even if I say so myself) ambitions of integrating history and philosophy of science in my lectures. I did what I could where I could, given the usual constraint of covering the syllabus in time. But somehow something was still missing. Yes, the students were excited when we discussed atomism or when I boldly declaimed borrowing from Paul Needham: water is not H2O. But it all had to stop at some point in the core classes because the curriculum demanded I focus on something else about the atom or water.

Things were however different when I found myself in the elective courses Research Methodology and Forensic Science that I offered. Yes, I had done research, but no one had taught me Research Methodology as a course. And again yes, I knew the interdisciplinary concepts that went into making forensic science, but again, I had never taken a course in the subject. Consequently, I researched and prepared harder for these elective courses than for my core chemistry courses. Seems funny, but it was in these classes I began to realise how one topic can be taught in different ways. Pedagogy – that word began to make sense when we discussed Jane Goodall with her chimps in the Kenyan jungles, and when O. J. Simpson’s Italian shoes steered the direction of the class proceedings in our discussion on footwear impressions. But even then, these were mere case studies to me.

It was only recently through the works of Rick Moog and Harold White when I was formally introduced to guided enquiry and PBL that realisation dawned. Perhaps most of us as teachers are already adopting concepts from educational research without knowing that it’s a thing. But then, yes, having been exposed to the concept, I did realise directions I had not taken simply because I didn’t know they would lead somewhere. It is only now with hindsight that I know that O. J. Simpson’s case would be a classic contender to set up a PBL in Forensic Science. I did a case study, but a PBL session would have been so much more engaging.

Richard Feynman once said philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. And I did see this general attitude towards (history and) philosophy of science being reflected by some colleagues during my postdoc and also while I taught. Education research too seems to suffer the same fate. I feel sad, and I feel bad. In our bid for more and more narrowly focussed specialisations, we have forgotten that a good education is to make us think. History and philosophy and sociology and literature have much to offer to (and take from) science if we’d just open our eyes and really observe.

Video source:

The Research Question

How do you choose a good research question? This is something I have thought about and discussed with my students. It helped that I offered the course Research Methodology while at WCC, for this is the course where I really got a chance to go deep into my own perceptions of research.

The two primary criteria that I remember discussing with the students in answer to that opening question are: interest and feasibility.

Interest – well, that’s self-explanatory. You need to have your heart in the research that you do. Otherwise, it becomes a drudgery and you are better off without it.

Feasibility. Yes! You need to know whether what interests you is really doable.

And to think about the do-ability, you must ideally be thinking about the time and resources at your disposal.

And to arrive at this intersection of interest and feasibility, a good researcher would rely on literature review.

When one says ‘literature review’, I understand that the tacit assumption is that along with reading, one is continually thinking and planning how to implement one’s own research. And by the time the literature review is ‘done’, the protocol at hand would most likely be very different from what one had when the review had just begun. It’s a good sign. This all makes sense, but the reason why I am writing this post is because I chanced upon this article in Molecular Cell titled How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem. There are two things I especially liked in this piece, and thought I should make a record of it for anyone who’d be interested, but more so for myself.

Uri Alon in writing this piece is being straightforward and practical, but I sense a depth in his writing as he takes a grounded view of things. Humane, that was the word that sprung to my mind when I read the article first.

So. The first thing:
The literature review phase, when one is apparently reading and thinking things through takes a philosophical bent in Alon’s mind.

In my lab, we have a rule for new students and postdocs: Do not commit to a problem before 3 months have elapsed. In these 3 months the new student or postdoc reads, discusses, and plans. The state of mind is focused on being rather than doing.

Being rather than doing. It is an essential clarion call for the times we live in, more so in academia. Personally, I have been besieged with temptation to rush ahead and do things, so I do understand the gravity in just being. In a culture that beseeches us to ‘Just do it!’, it is refreshing to be asked to just be.

I suppose in a certain sense, we all do sit with our ideas. But perhaps the question here is do we give those ideas sufficient time and space to germinate?

The second thing. Alon writes:

Starting Point: Choosing a Problem Is an Act of Nurturing

What is the goal of starting a lab? It is sometimes easy to pick up a default value, common in current culture, such as “The goal of my lab is to publish the maximum number of papers of the highest quality.”

However, in this essay, we will frame the goal differently: “A lab is a nurturing environment that aims to maximize the potential of students as scientists and as human beings.”

Choices such as these are crucial. From values—even if they are not consciously stated—flow all of the decisions made in the lab, big and small.

Nurturing and Values. Those are big words. Words with heft. And when one is using such words to describe what one does, I am certain there’s something very right happening there.

This was essential reading for me!

Please read the article in its entirety; it is freely available. It is good food for thought.

A Science Writing Workshop