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.

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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: http://www1.udel.edu/chem/white/Talks.html


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.


(e)Xpressions

Not just because the markets are flooded with them. But more so because the following is an exquisite primer on philosophy, gastronomy, and the how-to of staying a mile away from the Heimlich. 😉

Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

– Charles Simic, from Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk


Mostpeople. A collective noun.

Writing in his foreword to the first edition of Collected Poems, 1938, E. E. Cummings delineates a collective noun called mostpeople. What follows is an incisive characterisation of the group, which makes for a very interesting read. Coming from the poet who exhorted young people “to be nobody-but-yourself (- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everything else…),” this excerpt is worth visiting again and again especially for its “we can never be born enough” declaration.

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople — it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying—

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life, for eternal us, is now, and now is much to[o] busy being a little more than everything to seem anything, catastrophic included.

On a related note, the “we can never be born enough” phrase reminds me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Breaking the Fast. There’s a line in the poem that haunts me in the best way possible. “Remember your deepest name,” Nye says. There’s something about it that harks back to the E. E. Cummings excerpt. Here it follows for your reading pleasure.

1.

Japanese teacher says:
At first light, rise.
Don’t hover between
sleep and waking,
this makes you heavy,
puts a stone inside your heart.

The minute you drift back to shore,
anchor. Breathe.
Remember your deepest name.

2.

Sometimes objects stun me,
bamboo strainer, gray mug,
sitting exactly where
they were left.

They have not slept
or dreamt of lost faces.

I touch them carefully,
saying, tell me what you know.

3.

Cup of waves,
strawberry balanced
in a seashell.

In morning the water seems
clear to the bottom.

No fish blocks my view.

Most people are just that: mostpeople. But your job here is to remember your deepest name.


The whole universe is humming

This is what I want to call a seed post. Something will come off it, but not sure when.

1.
For eons, our knowledge of the universe has come to us in the form of light. And then physicists discovered in the nineteenth century that light is only one form of electromagnetic wave. With the development of detectors for other forms of electromagnetic waves, microwave astronomy, radio astronomy, infrared astronomy, ultraviolet astronomy, X-ray astronomy, and gamma ray astronomy were born one after another. After all, astronomical bodies are not going to radiate electromagnetic waves only in those frequencies detectable by certain creatures on a particular speck of a planet. The universe is humming across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. It is as if we had been peering at the cosmos through a narrow window and all of a sudden the curtain was pulled back to reveal that the window was in fact quite wide.

from Einstein’s Universe: Gravity at Work and Play
– A. Zee

2.
[…] in 2004 astronomers detected that there is in fact a “sound” of the universe. Science fact: the universe is humming. A galaxy in the Perseus cluster approximately 250 million light years away is emitting a note: B-flat. Fifty-seven octaves below the piano’s middle C.

from Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Science
– Kazim Ali

3.
The whole universe is humming, is vibrating. It’s that hum that I want to hear. That’s the subject of my poems.
from Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee
– Li-Young Lee


Vera Rubin: 1928 – 2016

Vera Rubin, pioneering dark matter theory researcher and staunch supporter of women in science, died on Christmas Day at the age of 88.

A trailblazing and inspiring woman, she let her light shine through and guide others. Here’s something she posted on her Twitter account early this year:

Look at her, indeed!

Trust yourself, that’s her admonition.

Here’s something I made to honour Rubin.

vera-rubin

Rubin delivered the commencement address at UC Berkeley in 1996. Here’s an excerpt from the address.

Science is hard and demanding, but each of you must believe that you can succeed. It may seem unlikely tonight, but there is not one among you who cannot make important, major contributions to the world of science.

She also cautions:

We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology.

Two decades on, that word of caution resounds all the more true not just for the US. India too could definitely do better with leaders who understand science.

Hop on over here and be inspired by the poetics in her speech.

I’ll close with the following note from her, urging graduates science-ward.

Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting. You can do it, too.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You can do it, too.