My chaos theory

butterfly-effectFor many years now I have been working in the area that is popularly called chaos theory. One idea that is central to this subject is that for systems that are nonlinear- namely those that do not give an output that is proportional to the input- small changes can have huge consequences. This is variously termed the butterfly effect or (more sedately) sensitive dependence on initial conditions. (The field is replete with evocative names- beyond chaos, there are attractors, some of which are strange, and so on… the image of the “butterfly” on the left is actually a view of an oscilloscope, and comes from a study of the equations that more or less created the field back in 1963…)

Untitled1The basic idea is a simple one. Were one to plot the evolution of a system schematically as a graph on a sheet of paper, then for nonlinear systems it can happen that starting at one location, the large black dot in the figure on the right, one sets out, over time, to move along the blue line, looping back and forth, to reach the point A after some period of time.

But were one to start every so closely from the point- even imperceptibly away from there, one would be on the red orbit, staying close to the blue for some time, but eventually moving away in as unpredictable a manner as possible, landing up at B at the same time when the blue line reaches A. The small change in “initial conditions” results in large changes in outcomes…

One is used to this, of course. Setting off marbles (in my head, but also, possibly in reality) from two nearby spots on a mountain peak, could easily lead to them rolling into different valleys- very different outcomes indeed. The systems of the preceding paragraphs is a catchall for any situation with many variables that change over time- indeed anything that can be suitably abstracted and described by a set of attributes. Systems that have been studied by the methods of chaos theory range from the weather and climate to cardiac problems and the stock market, very diverse areas of interest indeed.

Regrettably, though, the terminology of chaos theory has spawned any number of largely incorrect definitions in the urban dictionary, not to mention the very contrived movies that draw upon the name, and so the public perception of this rather simple and deep idea can be quite flawed. But the metaphor has substance beyond that, whether applying to something as unpredictable as the weather or whether applying to the unpredictability of the human condition… Small changes, different choices, perturbations in the environment- how different the outcomes could have been!

2013-08-05-diamonds2Surely this strikes a chord. I can recall reading the first papers that described the chaos theory in the late 1970’s  and being fascinated by what the implications were. Complexity could come out of very simple structures, the only requirement was nonlinearity. And anybody who has gone shopping, for potatoes or diamonds, it hardly matters which, knows that the price is not a linear function of weight. Other examples can be drawn, but the basic lesson is that most natural systems are nonlinear, and so one should find the effects of chaos everywhere. And one does, all the time!Untitled

For many  who come to the UoH- the students, the teachers, or for that matter, the administrators- there is a lesson here. What changes should one make, what little extra effort to put in, what to do, or not do… the eventual result can be so different, depending on the initial conditions. In the end, I suppose that state A and state B, whatever they are, should both be acceptable, both being logical outcome of living in a complex world. Does it really matter if a meeting is held on one day or another? Does it matter that colleagues and friends show consideration or not? An exam on one day or another, a lecture given or not?  One cannot but think of what might have been, what some other small initial differences in wisdom or generosity might have led to.

But then again, one makes choices, and as Frost put it so eloquently, the difference eventually comes about from the road taken… Or was it the road not taken?

To learn, to teach, to understand…

500004277-03-01At the Institute for Advanced Study where I spent a sabbatical some years ago, the photograph on the left was in the hallway outside my office: Oppenheimer with von Neumann, standing in front of the computer that they had built in a shed on Olden Lane, where the Crossroads Nursery School and Infant Center now stands.

Few American scientists have been publicly as deeply introspective as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Or as eloquent. His knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita stood him in good stead, when just before testing the bomb, he is said to have taken inspiration from the verse:

In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him

although where precisely in the Gita this appears is in some doubt. Nevertheless, the lines capture the angst of someone coming to grips with what must be done, however distasteful that might be. Later, when speaking to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists in November 1945 he drew attention to the value of a scientific approach.

I think that we have no hope at all if we yield in our belief in the value of science, in the good that it can be to the world to know about reality, about nature, to attain a gradually greater and greater control of nature, to learn, to teach, to understand. I think that if we lose our faith in this we stop being scientists, we sell out our heritage, we lose what we have most of value for …

Of course the context was different, and the times were morally complex, Hiroshima and Nagasaki having happened a short while earlier then, but the sequencing- learn, teach, understand- seems so apposite. After so many years of working in an University, and after countless discussions with colleagues across disciplines, I think that this is true of all areas of study and not just the sciences, that true understanding comes only after teaching.

Today this is a particularly fine message to share. Happy Teacher’s Day!

Independence Day 2014: Our USR

Members of the UoH Community,

TMy warmest good wishes to all on the occasion of the nation’s 68th Independence Day. Each year we collect to celebrate our independence, and to reaffirm our belief in the democratic values that hold us together as a country, even as we find our regional boundaries changing.

This is the first Independence Day celebration for the University of Hyderabad as we find ourselves located in the new state of Telangana. The transformation comes with new hopes and fresh challenges, even as we strive to find our feet in the new circumstances. One thing is clear, we are the premier research University of the new state, and we must pay our role to educate and we must fulfill our destiny, to educate, to enable, and to liberate.

The sense of liberation offered by education was beautifully captured by the students of our University at a recent show that they had, at the Salar Jung Museum. The title of the show was (taken from two lines from a poem, The moon is a kiteHow strong the Breeze, How precious the Flight.

The University is committed to providing a strong breeze- sometimes as a strong gust that pushes you off your feet, sometimes as a tornado, that churns up your thoughts and makes you re-evaluate your positions, and sometimes as that strong but gentle wind that slowly moulds your ideas and passions into values that will last. The winds of change blow gentle sometimes, but often not, and the University is a place where we willingly enter to experience that change.

soaringAnd the flight- how valuable it is when truly earned! The degrees are just one small part of it: the true value of the education that the University provides comes in the opportunities it gives to change ones life. And as so many of our students have discovered, sometimes while they are here, but more often after they have left, the University is a great springboard that can help you to reach as high as you want to. The wings you earn at the University will allow you to soar as high as your ambitions can take you.

In terms of resources, the past year has been a difficult one: we have had to bear the full brunt of the economic downturn. Our funding has been way below what we have needed, and indeed below the level that a University such as ours merits. We have been ranked among the top universities in India for the year 2014 in three independent surveys, by India Today, The Week and Careers 360. Ours is among the best Universities in the country and always ranked number one in the South. The NAAC puts us consistently at the top end of their scale. When excellence is recognized, it also needs to be nurtured, so we can only hope that with the change in the scenario at the centre, there will be some relief on this front for us all.

But there are things that we can justifiably be proud of. Our faculty and students have been recognized nationally and internationally for their research. One significant feature of our research over the years is the growth of the applied component – the number of patents that are filed and that are awarded have been increasing steadily.

I think that this is a welcome development, that the work that is done in the University should be more applicable and relevant to our society, to our times. Our University- as we all widely recognize- is a haven, a refuge that provides a wonderful environment in which we can pursue our academic and intellectual activities. We are very fortunate to be able to live and work here, and I believe we all appreciate the deep privilege that we have.

It is important that we should reflect upon how we can give back to the society that nurtures us. For many years now, there has been the notion of a “Corporate Social Responsibility”, recognition that any entity, particularly a corporation that makes profit, has both a social and a moral responsibility to the society in which it exists. We must pay attention to the manner in which we use public resources, else those very resources will be irretrievably lost to us by overuse and misuse. In our country, this social responsibility or CSR has been quantified, and on 1 April this year, the government of India implemented new CSR guidelines requiring companies to spend 2% of their net profit on social development.

What Social Responsibility does a University- our University say- have? We have usually answered this question implicitly, be it by doing what other universities do, by responding to directives that come from time to time from the outside, by admitting students from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, by having policies, explicit or implicit, that address a range of abilities.

Today I would like to suggest that we must take the opportunity to make our University Social Responsibility – our USR if you will- explicit. We must look more closely at the real needs of our society and each segment of our UoH community can do its own bit to address these needs. To start with, let us remember that our campus is in our custodianship, and we must nurture it carefully to provide a lung for the city. Our lakes must add to the water table. Our campus should be a refuge, not just for us, but also for the flora and fauna of Telengana, for the region. We should be careful keepers of the land and not owners or exploiters. This is a responsibility that devolves upon us all- the students, the teachers, and the staff- as we live and breathe here.

Our teachers share the USR in the most fundamental ways- we must live up to our label of being a research University, the best in the country. Our research must strive to be applicable and useful, and there is not an area of enquiry that does not have a chance of being so. Application is not just a matter of patents and products- research that opens our eyes, teaches us new perspectives, gives us new vision, new ideas- all these come from any field, and it is imperative that we make this our responsibility in as explicit a manner as possible.

But beyond that, we must participate in society more meaningfully. Opening our doors to as many students who can be accommodated is one- for every student here, there are almost 20 who could not be here. We therefore must address this need as soon as possible, and as effectively as possible. USR would suggest that we need to evolve at least as much as our society is evolving, in what we teach, how we teach it, and how we prepare our students to cope effectively with the India that is just outside our walls, and the India that lies beyond, both in space and in time.

UntitledInteracting with the city and beyond the limits of Hyderabad is important, especially in this day when local and global are so interchangeable and mixed into one another. Holding our conferences in the city- as the IAMCR that we concluded last month, the Dynamics Days conference that we held in Chennai, or the Women’s World Congress that we will have next week- is one way. Integrating into the fabric of our city, state or country in as involved a way as possible is another feature of what I see as our USR, and doubtless there are other ways that will occur to each one of us.

There is nothing very new in this. We have long used our truly national days- 26 January and 15 August- to reflect upon our journey as a nation, and to set agendas for the future. The social responsibility that I am alluding to today has always been a part of our consciousness, especially when we realize how fortunate we all feel to live in a free country, and in a society which, while imperfect, has sound democratic values. For long our gaze has been an inward one, which looks at our rights and privileges. We need also to turn it outward, and look at our responsibilities as a University, as we help to create the India of the future, the India that we all dream of: an India of prosperity, an India of progress, and an India of equality.

Jai Hind!

Taking Wing

10561790_10152201109211053_3239163086169552431_nThere is a brilliant art show in town at the Salar Jung Museum, a group show by the outgoing MFA students of our University. Paintings, sculpture, prints, installations- its all there in great variety and the exploration of different techniques and themes is amazing!

As the pictures in this post attest, there are artists finding their sophisticated expressions through a variety of media, and scattered across the gallery one can see installations made of matchsticks, lace, umbrellas, scupltures constructed out of wood, scrap… literally anything that could be used. The range is, to put it mildly, spectacular.

IMG_1135IMG_1136How strong the breeze, How precious the flight- the title of the show is taken from the feminist poet Andrea Gibson’s  The Moon is a Kite. The fragment brings to mind a wonderful image, of the fledgling artists finding their wings and taking strength from the training here- the breeze- to launch themselves into the wide open world- the flight. And as the dreams in one of the installations, the dreamcatcher on the right, swirl around in the gallery, the choice of title seems very appropriate…

But more, there is actually a double bonus at the Salar Jung- the adjacent gallery is home to another UoH linked show, by our honorary alumnus K. G. Subramanyam, the legendary artist who so graciously accepted an honorary doctorate from our University last year. Titled “New Works”, the scale and scope of the paintings on display belie the artist’s 90 years-  Mani-da, as he is more popularly known has admirable discipline, and the phenomenal ability to work in concentration. The few images of the paintings on display give an idea of what feasts await the visitor.

IMG_1138IMG_1131We are very fortunate to have such great persons associated with the University, and are very happy that the students’ show was inaugurated by him. One could not have asked for a stronger breeze to lift them up and propel them into the uncertainties of the everyday world and the vicissitudes of life beyond studenthood.

The show is on until the 16th of August for all to view and enjoy. By going out and showing our work in a public space, the University affirms, yet again, that we are not just of the city, we are a University for the city of Hyderabad…

Bend it like Zohra

zsAt recent meetings of the Academic and Executive Councils of the University, we had decided to confer the degree of Doctor of Arts (honoris causa) on Zohra Segal, doyenne of Indian theatre and cinema. Since she wrote to say she was unable to travel to Hyderabad, this was to have been presented to her daughter at our convocation on October 1 this year (see the correspondence below),  but now will be given posthumously.

I had written to her daughter, the Odissi dancer Kiran Segal on 25 June:

Dear Ms Sehgal [sic], I am very pleased to convey the information that the University of Hyderabad wishes to confer the degree of Doctor of Arts (honoris causa) upon your mother, Mrs Zohra Sehgal. We would be most honoured if she would accept this degree at the next convocation which will be on October 1, 2014.

The Departments of Theatre Arts in the Sarojini Naidu School would also like it if she would kindly agree to give a distinguished lecture at the University around that time and interact with the faculty and students.

We do hope that she will agree to be with us in October and I look forward to hearing from you. With regards, etc.

to which I got the very gracious response on 30 June:

zohrasegalDear Mr. Ramaswamy,

Thank you very much for the honour that your University is bestowing upon me! I am now 102 years old and therefore unable to travel anywhere. I hope you understand.

I still remember my visits to Hyderabad in days gone by & I must say that in each visit I had a lovely & delightful audience. In the past whenever I had visited Hyderabad, the ‘culture’ & ‘sensitivity’ of the Urdu language prevailed but, unfortunately it is rapidly fading!

As a suggestion and if it suits you, my daughter Padmashri Kiran Segal could come & receive the Degree and read out some excerpts from my ‘time spent in theatre’.

With best wishes, Padmavibhushan Smt. Zohra Segal

A suggestion that we are very happy to accept, and we look forward to having Kiran Segal with us at the next convocation.

There is a touch of sadness that she is no longer with us, but in her 102 years, she did so much in so many spheres. As a member of the Uday Shankar Troupe, then the IPTA, and of course the various movies that she acted in, including Bend it like Beckham. The demure photograph on the left dates from her time as a dancer, while the more characteristic one above is more recent, and wonderfully conveys the sense of mischief she brought to many of her acting roles.

Either way, she was a great ambassador for Indian theatre, and we at the UoH salute her several contributions to the performing arts!


My munia neighbours

220px-Lonchura_punctulata_(Nagarhole,_2004)A nesting pair of scaly-breasted munias  intend to set up residence on my balcony. Not quiet birds these, they announced their intention with much gusto and chirping, and over the last few days, there has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, grass being gathered and dropped, discussions on architecture and placements, doubtless. The picture I took of them was not good enough to show, so here is one from the relevant Wikipedia entry-

There are many on the campus who take wonderful photographs- of the flora and fauna, of the landscape built and unbuilt, and it would be good to display these talents more publicly. The 2015 UoH calendar will celebrate our wildlife, and hopefully inspire us once again to preserve and conserve it…

Over a year ago, before I moved onto campus, I had gone to see the (still uncompleted) house. On a sill upstairs, I found the perfect welcome- a nest with two perfectly placed eggs. That of a pied wagtail, as I later discovered- a proud home within a home, but so apposite.

IMG_0463I’m not one to believe in signs and the like, but it felt reassuring then. In the next few weeks we watched the eggs hatch, the nestlings grow, and then one day, it was time for them to fly away. The transformation, even when it happened before our eyes, was startling.

And, of course, a very immediate metaphor. As I see the campus preparing itself for receiving students old and new, the parallels are more than obvious, from the shared hostel rooms to the visible testing of wings and the eventual flight away from the nest and to the flocking together… As people return to campus, its good to receive messages from students, like “Yeah it feels good… I mean it feels like home again. Look at this: LH1, the oldest hostel… hot climate … nothing like Kerala… But it feels like home.

And to see these emotions (posted on FB) when they leave. “There are certain things in this world which you think will not affect you, and you will always just walk by unaffected…but everything and everyone does affect you, they linger on in your memory: may haunt you, may make you reminisce, may just make you realize that you are what you are because of it, even though all this time you may not have completely comprehended this…. I realize it now, as I get ready to actually leave you now University of Hyderabad: Thank you for hosting me for the past five years…you have helped me grow, helped me find my path, and given me some wonderful friends. Although you do seem to be like an “acquired taste” but I am glad to have acquired it. Mixed feelings at University of Hyderabad.

But metaphors apart, our campus is very much a haven as the two representative comments above show, and for birds as well. Of course there are significant differences between the way that we and our fine feathered friends view the refuge, and the image of the nest above says much of it. The birds don’t dirty their nests- something that we, regrettably, don’t seem to care about. I’m talking about the litter on campus, of course. So much of it is so unnecessary, and something that can be avoided with a little thought and care. Its easy to say that there are not enough garbage cans or waste bins. The arguments get tired by repetition, and in any case its more fun to look at the birds, their nests and the trees.

So here’s a simple “Welcome Back!” to returning students, a “Welcome!” to the new ones, to invite us all to enjoy this campus and to keep it as clean and au naturel as possible.

…a hill of beans

originalMany in my generation will confess to having read Lobsang Rampa in our  teenage years- the heady mix of mysticism and the exoticism of Tibetan Buddhism…  the feeling that these were new thoughts, and independent ones… the times, 1968, Paris, Danny the Red, and the draw of Kathmandu, all of it was irresistible. But it passed… temps perdu.

One thing that I recall being struck by in the Lobsang’s writings, such as they were, was the whole notion of the out-of-body experience. And on my recent trip to Beijing, I had this surreal feeling that I was going through it after all. Landing at the airport (also, like New Delhi’s  called T3) and taking a ride into town, I had this feeling of being there and not quite, that déjà vu all over again. So much of the familiar layering the unfamiliar…

UntitledBeijing is monumentally grand, Tiananmen Square most of all. With the gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao verily dominating the proceedings, the feeling of space and of consequence is huge. But more than that, most of the city has reinvented itself, and in much of it, one gets the feeling that there is a sense of purpose, of design. Perhaps it is the contrast, but one cannot but note that there is relatively little (or no) litter, no stray animals, good public transportation. I am  told that the metro is a good example of order in chaos, but even that.

I was there for the International Conference on Biological Physics, one at which I was one of two participants of Indian origin. (In contrast, at the hotel at which I was staying, there was a meeting of The World Peace Forum, at which I think I saw at least five Indians, “In Pursuit of Common Security: Peace, Mutual Trust, and Responsibility”!)

The area of biological physics has been growing steadily over the past decades, some of it deliberately so. As biologists began to recognise by the 1990’s many of the problems of modern biology needed help from others trained in slightly different areas. Mathematics, computer science, statistics, physics… The manner in which they then set out to attract people from other disciplines was exemplary. A lot of carrots, but the payoffs have been worth every bit of investment- the area of quantitative biology is one that has seen considerable expansion over the past decades.

At the UoH, we also recognised that when we set out our agenda for the Integrated M. Sc. in biology, which we named the IMSc (Systems Biology). Indeed, this is something that always gets admiration when I bring it to the notice of colleagues, that we had started this course quite some time ago.

Untitled 2But, and there is a but, we have not taken ourselves as seriously as we should have. The Beijing conference had something like 400 local participants, of who 300 would have been students ranging from the third to the ninth year after high-school. Namely M. Sc. and Ph. D. students in our system. The seriousness with which they attended and participated in the meeting- or so it seemed to an outsider- was impressive. We, by and large, were not there. And should have been.

It is fashionable, in some circles, to make comparisons between the countries and to find ourselves wanting. It is actually difficult not to do that, but I feel that where we are wanting is in purpose more than anything else. Our obsession with the local and the everyday- important though they are- can make us lose sight of a higher purpose, if there is one. And not help us to see a higher purpose if one is not immediately apparent.

This is, regrettably, the script that gets played out at the local or at the national level day in and day out. Most of the problems we face nationally are major, whether it is on issues like water security, food security, public health, power, biotech… the real list is long, and to reach any kind of solution will need a lot of work from a lot of people. Our preoccupations, such as they are, keep us in the quicksand of the expedient, far from doing what we need to.

Untitled 2To the title of this post. As Bogart says in Casablanca (of course to Bergman, and of course meaning something else) it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

We are more than three, but not really so many… and given the magnitude of the task we have to accomplish, I’d say it really it doesn’t take much to see that our little problems don’t amount to a hill of beans either.  So lets get on with it, shall we?