An Open Letter to Graduating IIT Students

Dear student,

After getting your first corporate job, your subconscious thinks, “Okay. I’m half-settled now. I shall live in Bengaluru, have a car, party hard every weekend, work hard on weekdays, hit on female (male) co-workers… who knows I may get along with a beautiful (handsome), intellectually capable one and get fully settled.

Well… my hearty congratulations! I agree with you on every single bit if the change excites you. Been there, done that — barring the fully settled part.

Newsflash 1! What your subconscious does not know is that half of that is never going to happen! I seriously hope it does not happen to any of you, but let us not get my high hopes of you get you delusional. When the truth strikes, you’ll find yourself frustrated or worse, and would want to go back to books/computers/college. At that time, some of you may realize how important it was to attend those last few months of classes that you safely ignored for that joker standing on the dais (as you may think) could not afford a life near TGIF, Airport Road, Bengaluru and most of what (s)he says is never going to work out in real life, especially if (s)he talks mathematics, philosophy or computer science theory.

When your wings are shot down by the drudgery –yes, that what you’d call “life”– and you hit the ground of reality, you’d ask yourself if this was what you wanted to do — write web-apps and test and debug software written by much more decisive people (read ‘academics’). Most of you would not have the courage to quit those fat salaries for some college’s meagre scholarship–irrespective of how deep red your heart bleeds–as your “loved ones” have gotten used to that life-style. Sorry. You’re finished! Live it. Become a VP of Sales in next 10 years, and may be the MD or CEO in next 20 years. Even then, you’d think why I didn’t jump off the sixth floor of the Administrative block in college days.

Some of you, mostly the “non settled” ones, would have the courage to go back and fulfil what they dreamt in those last few days in corporate life.

Well. Been there, done that as well. If, at this point, you’d think you’d be that “lucky one”, hold on to that thought for a moment.

In the graduate school, you’d keep high hopes of yourself. Well, why not? You were an IIT graduate after all, so it is your duty to settle ‘P vs. NP’ once and for all.

Newsflash 2! You’re too old by now. In the college, you’d curse yourself for not getting a long-time girl (boy) friend or a wife (husband). You’ll see beautiful new faces and bodies in hot pants and tank tops. Your hormones will rage, but no use. The “kids” won’t even look at your “mature” outlook. You’d start dressing yourself with the “current times”, but that’d only make your self-esteem dig a hole and bury itself in that. You’d invite “faggot” (if you’re too tacky) or “lassa” (if you’re too macho) remarks from your age group.

You’d try hard to excel in sports like your golden old days, again, just to attract a few lovey-dovey or lustful eyes on you, but then, you’d find that you’re no match to the young legs and fresh lungs, as you had already burnt yours with the cigarette smoke during the days of corporate frustration.

Failing all your attempts to be the college stud, you’d resort to your strengths — your academics. Again, to create a visibility for yourself, this time not to attract the Lolitas, but to create “an image” among your peers. That special one of opposite gender being the part of that peer group of course! You’d set your eyes on a fancy and hot topic like ‘Complex Networks’. You’d find that you can’t pick up on the concepts being taught in the graduate class, since you chose not to attend the undergraduate classes on that topic in those days when your subconscious was really happy on the prospect of a change.

Don’t despair! Start coming to the class now. The instructor is too cool to notice individuals missing the class, though he notices a large chunk missing.

Social Balance

“The shifting of alliances and rivalries in a social group can be viewed as arising from an energy minimization process. For example, suppose you have two friends who happen to detest each other. The resulting awkwardness often resolves itself in one of two ways: either you drop one of your friends, or they find a way to reconcile. In such scenarios, the overall social stress corresponds to a kind of energy that relaxes over time as relationships switch from hostility to friendship or vice versa.” — from Energy Landscape of Social Balance, Seth A. Marvel, Steven H. Strogatz, and Jon M. Kleinberg, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.103.198701

Very interesting! More interesting is what they conclude for the future research, viz, the “challenge for the future is to understand its large-scale structure, perhaps even including a characterization of the pathways leading out of the deepest minima–those corresponding to the most entrenched conflict–and toward states of reconciliation.”

The Problem of ‘Large Core’

Following is just the other perspective that lurks somewhere inside you too; I just intend to bring it in open.

Following is the argument that I wanted to convey during a meeting at my workplace. Like all the other schools of thought, this one too has its own merits and demerits, for philosophers have proven rigorously over the years that a complex enough system (“enough” here is a mathematical terminology, which can only be explained qualitatively, not quantitatively, and depends on the context) can not be consistent and complete at the same time.

The argument is what follows: A large core–which sadly most of the science and engineering institutes (even IITs) in India suffer from–tries to make a student learn everything that is taught in that core, irrespective of whether the student has an interest in all of the subjects or not. Yes, it is partially a pedagogy problem and depends on the instructor/teacher, but it is also the problem of restricting a student’s freedom and interests. The moment she has to, say, attend a course in machining despite a heavy bent of mind in theory or mathematics, her innovatory senses–even in mathematics, go out of the window.

The innovation need not be in “manufacturing” something only, it could well be in developing a new (simple) theorem or coming up with an idea that requires only lateral thinking, and no scientific thought whatsoever. Why restrict the wild and naive (at that moment) thoughts that could go on and become great ideas one day. History has proven that some of the best ideas, ideas that changed the entire thought process of humanity, have come in society that lets the individual free.

This of course does not mean that we should not have anything “in the core” of the curriculum: of course there should be, but, make it as small as possible by having (may be) multiple cores and let the student choose what core (s)he wants to do. Obviously, it could be that the student gets bored even with her chosen core, so we should have an option for her migrating to other areas by having the provision of electives in the core.

I understand that this way we’d have too many parameters to tackle with, and at one stage this problem could become (in CS Theory terminology) intractable. But that should not deter us unless we hit a dead end or we prove that the problem is really intractable.

Just my two cents.

Mathematical vs. Verbal Reasoning

George Bernard Shaw (1856 — 1950) once said that as a boy he (1) let someone assume that a=b, (2) permitted several steps of algebra, and (3) found that he had accepted a proof that 1=2. This incident had a deep impact on Shaw’s thought process and forever after, he distrusted assumptions and algebra. The conclusions of a mathematical theory can be retranslated into words, but rarely can they be found by verbal reasoning.

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

In reply to Shaw’s criticism of the formal mathematical reasoning, the economist Philip H. Wicksteed (1844 — 1927) nicely puts:

“Mr Shaw arrived at the sapient conclusion that there “was a screw loose somewhere”– not in his own reasoning powers, but — “in the algebraic art”; and thenceforth renounced mathematical reasoning in favour of the literary method which enables a clever man to follow equally fallacious arguments to equally absurd conclusions without seeing that they are absurd. This is the exact difference between the mathematical and literary treatment of the pure theory of political economy.”

Philip H. Wicksteed
Philip H. Wicksteed

In other words, a mathematical idea, if correctly put and checked, is better than the one that is put in words, for words can never possibly explain in thousands what an equation can. That si where the importance of mathematical shows.

Costly placebos are more effective!

Some patients undermine how effective a drug is if they are told it is rather inexpensive, i.e., costly placebos are more effective than cheap ones. That is the conclusion of Dr. Dan Ariely‘s landmark research that received the Ig Nobel prize for medicine. During the experiment, his team told volunteers that they were being given a new kind of painkiller, with some receiving an expensive one and others a cheaper one. In reality, all of them were given same sugar pills. When exposed to small electric shocks, Those who thought their pills were more expensive reported less pain than the others.

Although the conclusion is not new, and the research may sound humorous at the first glance, but I think this work is of great importance. A humorous work sometimes hides behind it a legitimate scientific point. You can read more about Dr. Ariely and his works in a brief biography here.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are a parody of the Nobel Prizes and are given each year in early October–around the time the recipients of the genuine Nobel Prizes are announced–for ten achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Organized by the open access, free for everyone scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)The journal of record for inflated research and personalities, they are presented by a group that includes genuine Nobel Laureates at a ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. This year’s Ig Nobel winners are listed here.

Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India

The Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists Project –by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut— is aimed at conducting a series of surveys in countries with differing cultures, in order to learn who today’s scientists are and to compare their thinking about a range of contemporary social, economic, cultural, moral and ethical issues. Under this project, first survey was conducted among Indian scientists. According to the project website, India was the first country chosen mainly because of its growing global importance in science and technology and in the education of scientific, medical and technology professionals. Among the 7,500 contacted science and technology majors, about 1,100 (~15%) from 119 institutions responded. Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur had the largest number (58) of participants.

The survey resulted in some very interesting trends. For example, a majority thinks that they studied sciences for personal interest and curiosity, something which, for some socioeconomic reasons in India, is hard to fathom. A majority thinks that India today does not fulfill its constitutional duty (viz, “to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”). I belong to that majority. A majority had faith in current economic policy in India, that of a mixed economy. Majority also believed that there are less women in science due to the cultural influence. I would like to see the response from US or European scientists to the question whether they endorse Evolutionary theory or not, for I think, in India, 88% concurring with the theory is too less for scientists. The most surprising response (to me) was to the question whether there is any efficacy in alternative curative and diagnostic techniques! I was surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see that half the scientists in India believe that Homeopathy is effective, and close to half believe that prayer is effective! Moreover, 44% approve astrology. There was a very interesting question in the survey, viz, “In 2005, space scientists went to Tirupati to seek the blessing of (some) lord before a launch. Do you approve the decision?” The response was shocking! 41% approved that action!

Needless to say, majority among the respondents (66%) said they were Hindus. Only 10% were in Atheists/Agnostics/No Religion category. 26% believed strongly in God and its existence. 28% believed that God does miracles. Majority of scientists were spiritual.

Most of the respondents were practising scientists. I’d also like to see such a survey conducted among students, not just in sciences, in India.