Republic Day, 2015

Friends-

This is the fourth time I have had the privilege of addressing the UoH community on the occasion of Republic Day. Like all anniversaries, this provides for a stocktaking and gives an opportunity to reflect upon our goals as a university.

UntitledMy inspiration for the few words I wish to share with you today come from our Chancellor, Prof. C H Hanumantha Rao (see the previous post)  who’s term formally came to a close earlier this month. Hanumantha Rao-garu has been a wise counsel, an elder on whom we could always bank upon at all times, not just times of crisis. Recently, when he was speaking of his alma mater, the Delhi School of Economics, he recalled the early days of the School and the founder, Dr. V K R V Rao, and some of the ideals that guided the formation of that great institution.

The main impetus to form such an institution- indeed the main aim we should have for our own university- is to have a place where “scholars can enjoy freedom of thought and expression”. This is important in order for them to be able to contribute to policy-making in a fearless manner, he pointed out, but I would add, it is important also that scholars should have complete freedom of thought, speech and expression so that they can create new modes of thinking, new works, and lead others to think along new and creative lines. At a time when freedom of expression can be curbed in so many ways, it is necessary to underscore the importance of spaces such as our University.

A second ideal that will strike a chord with all of us is the goal of achieving academic excellence. There are so many ways of achieving this goal, and all of them are difficult. Bringing together a group of excellent and committed individuals is one way, but that has its own challenges. To a very large extent, our University did try that route and some of the initial faculty were truly stellar. Keeping up the tempo is more of a challenge, and we are only slowly recognizing the difficulty of this path to academic excellence, the need to keep building up and maintaining a team of competent faculty. It is also important to not flag, and to not give up in any dimension of endeavour…

vkrv-newA third ideal which VKRV Rao appears to have passionately held and communicated to teachers and students was a dedication to social commitment, which Prof. Hanumantha Rao says he thought was as important as technical competence. I think that it is necessary to recall this most strongly in these very trying days- the pursuit of individual goals has slowly but surely weakened this social commitment, and this has not been to our advantage as a society which continues to face nearly as many challenges today as it did forty years ago when our University was founded.

It is interesting that one means of achieving this, in the eyes of VKRV Rao, was in an “interdisciplinary approach in addressing socio-economic problems”. I need hardly emphasise that we too share this ideal in our University, and in the way in which we have developed in the past few decades, in particular under the rubric of the University with Potential for Excellence. Much as we bridle under the implications of the word “Potential” in the phrase, it should be acknowledged that it is fair: our goals of excellence are some distance away and need our concentrated and concerted efforts.

Our University has recently been awarded an additional grant under the UPE scheme, a grant that will help us better realize the goal of providing space to explore scholarship with complete freedom. We should use this to reach the excellence we are capable of. One of the things we need, paradoxically, is more spaces to study and more spaces where we can train ourselves to meet the challenges of the outside world. The University is committed to providing these and in the near future, we plan to construct a Reading Room in the South Campus (it would be fitting to name it after Savitribai Phule when it is done). A second structure that is planned is the Samatha Bhavan, a unified space where students can come together to train themselves and be trained in dimensions – other than just academics – that are needed in order to be better prepared when they leave the University.

As before, I would also like to draw our attention to the very special privileges that being at a comprehensive University such as ours give us all automatically. The University is very young and has just started along its path of growth- we need to pay special attention to how we expand and how we share our good fortune with others who have less by way of facilities, infrastructure and expertise. The UoH has a leadership role to play in the community of Universities, and we should find the way to do so responsibly, as well as to do this with generosity.

600px-Republic_Emblem.svgWe have many goals as a University, the main one being to provide a space where there can be complete freedom of thought, and the freedom to explore all scholarly modes of expression. This needs both dedication as well as imagination, catalyzed by collaboration across disciplines. No discipline has all the answers- indeed no discipline has all the questions! We should see how best to use our freedom for public good- not just in terms of educating larger numbers of our citizenry, but also to bring about important interventions in the public space and to mold public policy, thereby strengthening the fabric of the Republic.

Jai Hind!

An autumn stillness

Boris Pasternak’s poem Let’s drop words… has these evocative lines,  No need to analyse why, with such ceremony, foliage is sprinkled with madder and lemon.

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The words acquired new meaning for me when the landscape matched the mood one recent afternoon outside the Munch Museum in Oslo, the clouds, the shadows, the trees, and the sky, all conspired to create a scene that evoked hidden memories.

Life, like an autumn stillness, is all detail.

The things that stand out sharp in the mind’s eye, the colour of the sky another October morning, the stillness of a pond, another set of leaves changing hues, the goldenness of carp as they swam lazily in the cooling water. Many images flit by, some remembered, some reminded, and some imagined too, I suppose.

MF3-1109There are places that are gifted with seasons that change so drastically that they can punctuate the year. In some latitudes- regrettably not ours- autumn is like a semicolon; the sentence of the summer pauses before the winter period sets in. Or maybe the autumn is more like an ellipsis… much indicated, but leaving much unsaid and much implied.

There’s something to having certain times of year reserved for certain feelings- like not being able to eat a mango after August. It is a sort of emotional self-discipline really, that certain times should be preserved for certain things. And while one can do different things best in different seasons, the fall is a time like no other that invites reflection, when hope is tempered by experience.

Untitled 3But yet there is a sadness that the passing of autumn captures, the rich burst of colour in the leaves that will fall, the flamboyance of that final lonely passage, that cummings wrote so cleverly about. The various shades of lemon or madder, of orange, and of yellow- indeed no reason to analyse why, or even more unnecessarily, how.

You’ll ask, says Pasternak, who ordains it? The omnipotent god of details. That god of very small things…

Meditations on Meditations

marcusa-weapons-quote-jpgAs I mentioned in a comment on a recent post, I’ve been reading Marcus AureliusMeditations. Its not the kind of book one just happens upon, there is a time when one turns to the thoughts of a long dead Roman and finds enough there that rings true today, an echo across the centuries…

Its difficult enough to avoid the comment banal, that there has been no essential change in human nature in all of recorded human history, so I shall get it over with as soon as possible. As a fraction of evolutionary time, all recent history is vanishingly fleet, so it would be almost surprising if one did not find that there are words of Marcus Aurelius that sound like a discourse on contemporary events.

Meditations is a book designed to be dipped into, randomly, letting serendipity guide you to something that strikes, at that time, in that place… Which is always useful when looking at our situation on campus. The other day, for instance, I chanced upon his comment,  That which does no harm to the state, does no harm to the citizen. (He repeats this idea many times in many ways- for instance in the quote I mentioned in my Convocation address this time around, That which is good for the swarm is good for the bee.) In the case of every appearance of harm apply this rule: if the state is not harmed by this, neither am I harmed.  This adapts so well to us here and now: That which does no harm to the University, does no harm to the UoH faculty/student/staff. In the case of every appearance of harm apply this rule: if the University is not harmed by this, neither am I harmed.

Of course, this is only part of the quotation, since Marcus A goes on to say, But if the state is harmed, thou must not be angry with him who does harm to the state. Show him where his error is. In the face of those that harm the state or the University by throwing a spanner in the works- usually a legal one- it is difficult not to be angry… The amount of working time that is wasted in responding to those that file frivolous lawsuits against the University due to slights imagined and entitlements assumed,  as well as to those that demand information that they have a right to, but demand for the wrong reasons… One could do so much that is useful with that time. But it does seem that MA was also plagued by similar demands, when he says,

marcus_aurelius_caesar…remember withal that no man properly can be said to live more than that which is now present, which is but a moment of time. Whatsoever is besides either is already past, or uncertain. The time therefore that any man doth live, is but a little, and the place where he liveth, is but a very little corner of the earth, and the greatest fame that can remain of a man after his death, even that is but little, and that too, such as it is whilst it is, is by the succession of silly mortal men preserved, who likewise shall shortly die, and even whiles they live know not what in very deed they themselves are: and much less can know one, who long before is dead and gone. 

So much for legacies, and so much for the grand design. A deep message that runs through Meditations is that we are all connected–the intelligence of the world is social.  This is fractally true, at level after level: more so the closer we look, the more connected we seem to be. So to adapt this aphorism to our time and place, the intelligence of this University is also social. This community needs to cohere: it can either be well-arranged […] or just a chaos huddled together, but still, it is our University, and it behooves us all to do the best we can with it, by it, and for it.

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, say the change that might be effected by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, 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 “system” 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?

…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?

Our Game of Thrones

HBO CANADA - #OwnTheThrone in Vancouver!The quote attributed to Henry Kissinger, namely “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small” is also seen as an instance of Sayre’s Law, that in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue. Kissinger probably said it, but so have many people before him and since. Woodrow Wilson as President of Princeton University in the years 1902 to 1910 observed sardonically that the intensity of academic squabbles was a function of the “triviality” of the issues being considered.

My recent introduction to the TV series Game of Thrones has been most instructive. Having missed the first three seasons I’ve had a bit of catching up to do with the complex stories that are woven into the somewhat dark fantasy. Of course, the parallels with other sagas like the Iliad or the Odyssey, or the Mahabharata are there- not for nothing is it said (of the Mahabharata), Yennéhâsti na tadkvacit, namelyWhat is not here is nowhere else”!

Inevitably, one is drawn to the parallels that can be made to life at our University. Although our setting is not particularly dark, we seem to have our share of complex stories that have been woven into a not very long history- after all, forty years is not much of a lifetime. But still, memories at the University run long and deep, and there is often an event in our present that echoes another in our past.

The GoT analogies are somewhat direct- each of the kingdoms is like a School of study, only there there are seven and here we have twelve. The continents of Westeros and Essos are very real entities indeed- these are our two cultures! Of course we are spared the relentless wars, but we do occasionally have minor battles over the limited resources that come our way, and the smaller the stakes, the more intense the combat!

ceOne of the questions playing on my mind, for instance is how many Schools of study should there be in the University? At present we have 12, but clearly we don’t cover all the areas of studies that a University should or could have. The manner in which we grow is therefore important, and there are many models that are available to us. There is admittedly a chicken and egg situation: What should one do first? We could decide by fiat or by committee (a near impossibility!) as to what is desirable. Or we could start courses- hit the ground running- and then worry about getting faculty. Or we can wait for someone else to tell us what to do. As it happens, all these models have been employed at the UoH at one time or the other in the past, and there is always an éminence grise who will tell me of this or that situation which was similar to that or this in the past. All very useful, of course, but often an impediment to action. Nevertheless, we need to think carefully about this, since the only reasons for the creation of new Departments, Centres, or Schools can be academic ones, and no other motivation needs to be operative. This is where other analogies from the Game of Thrones come into play- who shall be lord and who the king…

If one cannot learn from the past, one is doomed to make more mistakes- first the tragedy and then the farce as Marx famously said. But this could also be a millstone that simply does not allow us to evolve new patterns and new structures. It can be stultifying to have to grow within the same formats, especially if the format does not allow for flexibility. I do hope that collectively and individually we can find the way forward.

Given the momentous events of the week past, it is not possible to close without commenting on the other game of thrones, the one being played out in Delhi. This blogpost was written over a period of time that includes both the elections and it’s denouement. It is of immeasurable importance as to who is named the Minister for Human Resource Development as the policies and practices that are in force in the next few years will be crucial to the further growth of our  University. The last two years of stasis have been an impediment that cannot be exaggerated, and while I do not anticipate the financial picture to become rosy overnight, one can only hope that the vision for change will be founded on sound principles of better education at all levels, especially the tertiary. And an unassailable respect for the autonomy of the University, our aims, and our aspirations.

UoH on Wikipedia

when searching for information on almost anything – and on our university in particular- one usually checks Wikipedia. Do that, and you are led to a page where the information (such as it is) is presented somewhat whimsically. For instance, one finds that the university imparts knowledge, in the Basic Sciences, Applied Sciences, Medical Science, Engineering Science, the Social Sciences, the Humanities, Arts, Fine Arts, Media Studies and Communication. In addition, traditional subjects like Folklore Studies, Health Psychology, Dalit Studies, Women’s Studies, Neural and Cognitive Sciences are also taught.

Traditional? If anything, the last named subjects are very far from traditional. But there other other inadequacies one can discover upon reading through the (rather dreary) text. There are no images, no photographs of Mushroom Rock, nothing. The description accompanying  Sukoon (सुकून) says (and I quote verbatim) that ‘Sukoon’ is an annual cultural meet for the university students. Organised by the Students’ Union, it is held in the March at the Open Dias. ‘Sukoon'(सुकून) means ‘Peace’. In this colourful event, many competitions are held for and by the students, like ‘Mr.& Ms.Sukoon Competition’, Rangoli, Shayari, Quiz, Antaakshari, Debate in English-Telugu-Hindi-Urdu, Dance, Singing, Spot Painting, etc. Other events like DJ night, Quawali, traditional folk musical events, etc. are organised. The School of Economics, we are told, offers M.A, MPhil and Ph.D in Economics, and optional subjects like Transional Economics, Law and Economics, Financial Econometrics, and Health Economics. Spelling errors apart, surely we can do better than this!

Wikipedia-logo_kaClearly, given the nature of the Wikipedia project, in the end we alone are responsible for this. I know that several of us at the University contribute to Wikipedia- in fact there are regular meetings of the Telugu Wikipedians at the Golden Threshold campus- but it remains a reality that the existing UoH page on the English Wikipedia is really not up to the mark. Nor is the one in Telugu, regrettably.

A little effort can change that, and that effort has to come from us. Its sometimes easier to be inspired by what others have done for themselves, so here are quick links to the relevant pages of some representative universities here in India as well as elsewhere. I’d like to ask all of you at the University to take a look at the UoH page and edit it to improve the quality of the information. And the quantity and the nature of the information as well. After all, this is often the first face of the University that others will see…