Thursday, April 23, 2020

Nearly three months on

It will soon be three months. Three months! Is that already so long ago, or is it only three months? I remember that fateful day in July when I was in IIT Hyderabad when I saw the words `metastatic disease' which are some of the most dreadful words one can see. It came after the the PET scan the previous day. She had gone for the X-ray by herself a few days earlier and Dr Sahay did not like what he saw. She had this bad fever in June. It came and went. But I told myself, only few months earlier we went again and again to the AOI and Dr. Babaiah was satisfied and surprised beyond is imagination. Only three months earlier we had been through this ordeal with Appa and his heart attack and his quadruple surgery. He came out ok, albeit slow and forgetful but surprisingly alright for someone of his age. The next Dr. Sudha told me it was quite bad, maybe a year. I said, a year and started crying in her office. The previous day when Sitanna and I were coming back from IIT Hyderabad and I cried the whole way back. I cried when I saw her in the living room with Appa. She did not know why I was crying. But I am sure she guessed. She was too clever by half. But did not let on. After meeting Sudhar, Umax and I were coming back and I was telling her she will be with us only for a few months. And yet I was not believing it. Then we got opinions from Hochstin. He said to start on trastu and the other immuno-therapy. I was optimistic. This cannot be happening to us us. We are in the best hands possible. The odds are in our favour. She went every Saturday without complaining. Getting her own cat bag and other bag ready with her clothes, change of clothes, curd rice. I was happy I was there every 3 weeks. We will win. We will get a year or two, I told myself. Uma told me Sudha had told her may be 5 months or 6 months. I did not want to believe it. How prescient of Uma to have cancelled her trip to Tirupati for the key-note speech. I said to myself, why is she doing this. Chitti will be ok. She was ok. I see her still, walking in her nightie in Jubilee Hills opening her cupboards, and looking for this or that. With her whatsapp. How cruelly she has been taken away from us. The light of our lives. What can I say? That it is good she went without more pain and suffering? Without more hospitals and tubes and ventilators? I want to look for the bright side. Sadly I am yet to see it. I see her still, talking willy-nilly to everyone. Walking in her garden. Talking to the passers-by, talking to Bheemesh, to Radha. I remember going with her to the pension office on the way to JH in November. She was so pretty even if without hair. I am sure she knew. But she would not tell, this cannot have happened to us...I will not accept it...death be not proud.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Memorial Address for V. Venkataraman

This is an extended and updated version of an email sent to Mrs. and Miss Venkat

Thank you very much for giving me your email address. I am sorry we have not been able to visit you and Priya personally and would like to do so as soon as possible when it is convenient for you. The day we got the news, I had to leave for Hyderabad as my mother was in the ICU. Sadly we lost her on the 29th. Considering how painful the loss of a mother who had reached the comfortable age of 82 has been for us, it is hard for us to imagine how you must feel at the loss of a life partner and a father respectively at the age of 52. I remember Venkat's birthday distinctly, since July 28 is that of my late beloved periamma who has a special place for all of us.

How can I start, and where shall I start? First of all it is ironical to have to write about someone who is younger than oneself. But I will try.

I think I first met Venkat at Princeton when I was visiting Prabhu probably around 1989 or so from Delaware. Venkat was also a friend of my old friend Kothandaraman who had also passed through Princeton, while he was working there. I believe they had common interests in semi-conductors and the like. I believe that we had a year or two overlap in IIT Madras but I don't think I knew him then.

Our acquaintance took place after I came to IISc in 1996 December and I remember seeing more of him in Tunga as we would drop by to visit the Prabhu's. I also remember seeing the two of you, although Priya must have been about 2 feet high at that time. I must congratulate both you and Venkat for her having grown into a fine young woman, responsible and sincere and the hope of the future for you and for our country. She has a particularly difficult task in coping and if there is any way we can help, please let us know.

I got to know Venkat better over the years professionally since he was in charge of so many things, like courses, I. Ph. D. programme etc. Our real serious interactions took place every summer for several years when we would jointly compose the I. Ph. D. entrance exam paper, in the old CTS building. It was a great pleasure to be with him and many others, including Tarun and Justin who were regulars. Over Adiga's dosais and thair vadais we would work out each problem and think about all possible ambiguities, type them up, make the keys and what not. It was a lot of work, but it gave us a chance to bond which I cherish. After we finished bonding, together we decided to get rid of the exam, and made a proposal to enter the Joint Admission Test of the IITs. Venkat saw this through to the end and that was the end of the exam as it was too much to conduct one more exam when there was already a national exam in place. I should note the extreme precision of Venkat and his sharpness and quickness and attention to detail during these interactions. Later on, we both served concurrently on the Board of Editors of Current Science and would often cross-referee manuscripts that the Chief Editor would send to us.

Our most serious interactions were when Venkat became Chair of Physics and I was already Chair of CHEP for some years. As I would often say, I went from being a younger brother of Chandan and Krish to becoming an elder brother of Venkat, as I would be to an even younger Prabal for a month and a half in 2018. I would refer to Venkat as Thambi for no particular reason, except for warmth and friendship that I felt for him which he reciprocated in his own quiet way. I understand from Mrs. Venkat that he would at times refer to me as Anna or ChepAnna! Thank you Venkat for that. I would also talk to him in Tamil for no particular reason except for the reasons above, and probably because we had a shared idiom. For instance, he was Venkatakrishnan Venkataraman the son of Venkataraman Venkatakrishnan, indeed as I am Balasubramanian Ananthanarayan, son of Ananthanarayan Balasubramanian. And also our shared idiom of service and a sense of duty towards our employer, although I must admit he was far more selfless than I. This shared idiom and warmth also enabled us to have some private jokes between us, which I will now enumerate to the best of my recollection.

It was quite a challenge to run the two departments but I think we had an outstanding rapport. I cannot remember a single time when I felt I was not satisfied with the outcome of a discussion, or vice verse. We had a delicate balance between requirements of each department and the need to have an equitable solution that would probably satisfy or not satisfy anyone. Many of the things that you would see in the physical sciences building was the product of our joint efforts, often initiatives coming from me, because we would have some funds left towards the end of the financial year and the need to have a creative solution for their use. Venkat would always support any initiative. Some of the notable examples are the large improved balcony on the first floor, the large patio in the western part of the building which serve as spaces for common use. There were also challenges when the new wing was constructed. For instance, we were walking together one day and one of the persons from the Estate Office or whatever it is called, perhaps PMG asked how to name the new floors and office. Within 5 minutes we gave a solution: call them E, F wings and we gave the formula for numbering them. And so on. Together we planned what you may all have taken for granted: the eaves on the corridors, poring over floor plans, making proposals for additional wings which are yet to be constructed. We used to have a private joke that the two proposed wings on the 2nd floor abutting CHEP and JAP should be named the Venkataraman and Ananthanarayan Memorial Wings. I should also add that all the above did not mean that Venkat was a pushover. He could stick to his guns and argue out his positions, but basically he had a sympathetic approach and an approach of fairness and objectivity.

In terms of academic initiatives, I thought that it should be good to invite Applied Physics and Instrumentation to join the I. Ph. D. programme and Venkat gave his unqualified support. And it was supported by all others and it happened. As time goes by, I think the successes of our academic programmes rests on the tireless work of those that were in positions of responsibility and they will become part of the firmament as stars which light the night sky, but will remain unnamed.

Let me turn now to what I meant when I said Venkat was selfless. Looking at his outstanding scholastic record of IIT M, and doubtless a topper, his Ph. D. from Princeton, any normal human being would have used it for self-promotion, including also his academic position in IISc. But he was not normal. He was saintly and shall I say trans-human. Our private joke when we would talk about recognition was that he would say `samblam kudta porun'. But he ensured that his younger colleagues got all the recognition by supporting them. Show me one other person who would have done something like this! And yet, his Institute colloquium was a brilliant tour de force peppered with immense amounts of information where he displayed his breadth of knowledge and also his sense of humor. For instance, it was here that he mentioned while introducing a well-known figure in his field that according to his wikipedia page, he was a mathematician and an entrepreneur. Venkat made a quiet remark that this seems like a contradiction in terms, which I think members of the audience took a second to understand! It may also be an opportune moment to note that Venkat was taken away at the beginning of the prime of his career with a peak awaiting him in the coming years, since he already had his administrative duties behind him and also because of his own entrepreneurial foray during his sabbatical year. He did tell me once in a rare moment of tiredness during the heydays of his Chairmanship that one of the reasons he came right back after his Ph. D. at Princeton was that he wanted to leave a quiet life -- he never thought his life would become so hectic!

At a personal level, I think Venkat had never taken a sick day in his tenure before June 2019. I had noticed that over the years he had got slimmer, probably decided to watch his sugar levels and BP, indeed as all of us south-Asians should. He would also ride his bicycle for his fitness regime, I suppose. I would also tease him once in a way about his thinning hair line, or his vazikh mottai, but would point out that even amongst apes, baldness was a sign of higher social standing and wisdom. And carry an austere lunch except for lunch at times at the Faculty Club. I would rarely see him at teas and coffees, probably for the same reason. Mrs Venkat tells me that at times he would ask for a double serving of grapes for his lunch because he was aware that I would gatecrash into his office and demand to share the grapes! It is therefore doubly ironic that he should have been taken away so early.

In fact, I had noticed in May when we went for the Animesh grihapravesham that he was not driving very well on the way back when you dropped me off. I attributed it to our talking while he was driving. Later I saw him in the building sort of looking down and walking, probably some problem with his vision.

During his year on sabbatical, he would come once in a way and I would tease him saying that I am looking forward to the IPO of his company so that I could invest wisely. My possibly last conversation with him was when he was coming back from sabbatical, was to pull his leg that now the Institute will make him the next Divisional Chair. Who would have imagined that things would have come to this pass? I understand that his reputation as a phenomenal teacher has been recognized by the announcement of the Jaya Jayant teaching award. It is probably the award that would have meant the most to him.

I could go on and on, but I think I will stop here. While we all must rationalize everything, we can only hope that he has gone to a better place. Let us also remember that Whom the Gods Love die young. I hope that you will be able to find some solace in the fact that you could share so many years with such a gem. His honesty and sincerity will be a touchstone for all of us. To an extent he is more like persons for past generations who put society and others before themselves. Let us all be thankful that our lives were touched by his brief one.

I will miss his immaculately dressed self, with a little tilt of the head and a hand in the pocket and his unhurried walk.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Talk on the Occasion to Mark Change of Chairmanship of CHEP -- 28 September, 2018

I am thankful to the members of CHEP and the new Chair, Justin for having organized this event to mark the change in Chairmanship of the Centre.

I would like to recall an occasion take took place at the end of the Lattice 2000 workshop, an international conference that was organized by Apoorva Patel in IISc. When it came to the time of the workshop's closing event, Apoorva had to make the valedictory speech. He began by saying that he came from a small place and was not taught how to make speeches. Instead, he narrated a folk tale from his place, where a not so well-off person was asked to organize a party. He organized it in a courtyard and the revellers were asked to take off their footwear and jackets and leave them outside and were all given handheld fans as it was a hot day. The rest of the evening was with the revellers talking to one another and they had a great time. There is an ending to this story that I will not mention now, but only at the end of my speech. The main moral of this anecdote is that the party is what the revellers made it, and all that the organizer provided was the space and the handheld fan. The other moral is that it is not always necessary to make speeches! In the course of the 3520 days that began on January 27, 2009 and ended on September 17, 2018, I have made numerous speeches and so I cannot claim that I was never learnt to make speeches! But I have learnt that the fate of most speeches is that they essentially fall on deaf ears. I have also made numerous sermons in writing and unless you have deleted them, you will have them in your email accounts. Jokes apart, in most of the speeches and sermons I have tried to emphasize that we have a special responsibility as members of an important department of the country's most reputed Institution. This will be a statement that is invariant under who is the Chair and who is not.

The job of the Chair is not an enviable one. He or she has to constantly keep in mind that general good and works under tremendous constraints, coming from financial as well as physical constraints. If the guiding principle is of the general good, and that one has to optimize the use of scarce resources, and that one is within the ambit of the law and convention, and common sense then most decisions are the natural ones. It is also a fact that not everyone will be happy, and being the Chair is not the surest way of winning a popularity poll. That said, it is the part of our Service Rules that duties can be assigned by Authority from time to time and the employee is bound to serve by them. Thus, popularity or not, one has to discharge one's duties irrespective of the nature of these, should the Authority vest such responsibility in us. It is with this view that I served these 3520 days. What has been achieved or not, time and history will tell, and the past is now firmly behind us. At this point, I need to thank Directors Balaram and Anurag Kumar and Divisional Chair Rahul Pandit for having vested the responsibility in me. To their eternal credit and I thank them for this, I have never had a decision overturned. All the above, also begs the question as to why I conveyed my desire to step down on August 3, 2018 by email to Rahul. The reasons are many-fold. Primarily, I feel that we had reached a stage when the Centre needed new leadership. Any organization reaches a stage when the management runs out of steam. Also, by staying on I would have denied the opportunity to the members of CHEP to benefit from new ideas and new directions. While I will continue to be a member of the department would be happy to offer any help, it was really necessary for the department to get a second wind after the period of growth and consolidation.

I also thank all the members of CHEP, past and present, since there was never an instance when there was complaint against one member against another. I think this is a remarkable achievement and I commend all of you on this and I hope that Justin will also have smooth sailing in this regard. I thank all of you who have helped me one way or another, psychologically or physically, through your participation in discussions and counselling me, serving on committees and in general being good colleagues. The only person I wish to thank by name is Mr. Keshava, because without him I could not have done a day's work. During these 3520 days, I do not recall a single occasion on which he let me down.

With these words, I take the opportunity to once again thank all of you for having been the revellers.

P. S.: the ending to the story is that when the revellers decided to wind down and go home, they found their footwear and jackets had been sold off by the organizer!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Transcript of the written version of my talk on Communication to IISc freshers, August 19, 2018

I am thankful to the Students' Council for inviting me to present this talk. The invitation letter I received on August 15, stated the following: `` Communication skills are essential for any scientist or researcher in order to be able to convey his/her ideas to the rest of the community. Writing research papers is also not an easy task and one needs to acquire the necessary skills to be able to write papers of an internationally acceptable standard. These two skills are often areas in which many scientists are found wanting, which makes a formal training in these aspects necessary.''

I promptly accepted the invitation by email, although I did not know how they even knew about me, and why they thought that I was the correct person to give this talk. The reasons could be that I recently gave a small presentation at the Memorial Meeting they organized for Stephen Hawking, and also because I am quite active on Facebook. Of course, I have been a teacher in IISc for over 21 years and do mix with students. By mentioning all these almost obvious things, I would like to draw your attention to the multiple aspects of communication that are already involved here. We live in an era of multiple modes of communication, personal as well electronic on a scale never known before. While 15 minutes is not a whole lot of time, I will not spend time on the general aspects of communication and of technical writing, but would rather concentrate on the specific problems that face us as people of India in these spheres, and how we can find solutions, and also in the setting of IISc.

Many of the problems that I will talk about are quite general but if you were to develop a sense of self-appraisal and self-awareness, you can solve them without too much difficulty. The first hit on google for the word communication gives the meaning `the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium.' One of the points that I would like to specifically draw your attention to is that communication is an Input-Output process. In technical parlance, there is a sender and a receiver for every message. It is important to put yourself in the shoes of the receiver and to ask critically whether your message has been received uncorrupted, or with the correct connotation, and that the connotation has not changed because of lack of clarity or due to ambiguity, or due plain and simple mistakes of transcription or enunciation. Furthermore, I would like to mention that communication skills includes both trying to understand what others are conveying, and to convey information in the most precise of terms.

Keeping in mind that we are a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic society, we must understand that idioms and nuances that one may be accustomed to in one's own milieu may not translate into the same in another's. It is important to have an open mind and to communicate in as simple and as universal terms as possible, especially since we in the Indian Institute of Science. For many of you, this may be the first instance of your leaving home and a protected environment, and you are facing the big bad world for the first time. Thus, you are facing multiple challenges and communicating under these circumstances can be quite a challenge.

Communication in a complex setting like in a laboratory or in a classroom, or in a hostel or in a gymkhana setting, includes not just verbal communication but also of body language, and other forms of non-verbal communication. Young people must learn to receive multiple signals and develop a sensitivity to the diversity of expression. The above said, communication between teacher and student, between supervisor and scholar are of special significance, indeed as are communications between fellow students, as well as with other members of faculty and the community. These can be quite different, and can be challenging. It is best to exercise caution in communication in such scenarii and it is also best to keep in mind that discretion is the better part of valour.

For purposes of scientific communication, one cannot overemphasize the importance of the English language. It is important to master oral as well as written English. A strong command of grammar and vocabulary are an integral part of communication. Let us note that communication is both auditory as well as visual. In terms of talks and presentations, there are now enormous resources for word processing, with all kinds of aids such as embedded movies, simulations, pictures, figures, histograms, pie-charts and so on. You could also communicate your work by posters, or on the internet via a blog or facebooks posts or on twitter or instagram. There are plenty of online guides on how to make presentations effective. In this context, you must keep in mind your audience and tune your message suitably. The level and complexity of ideas and presentation must be tuned keeping in mind the parameters of the technical ability of your audience and the training of the audience itself. You must learn to give talks first within your own groups and listen to one another critically and help one another.

In terms of oral communication, please do note that listeners will not always be patient with strong accents that they are not accustomed to. While there is no human being will not have an accent, each of us must make an attempt to have oneself understood. The purpose of language is be understood and to understand. It is a matter of training to achieve these goals and it is better to start early.

The crucial aspects of presentation skills are precision and economy. You must point out the state of the art of a particular research problem, and describe the novelty of your own work, and present the breakthroughs in your research. Practice makes perfect, and indeed you will not be able to give a good presentation or talk unless you are on top of your subject. In order to be top of the subject, one must go after it with great energy and dedication and commitment. Veterans in the subject can immediately figure out when a speaker knows what he or she is talking about, and are rarely fooled by fluff. It is the subject matter that will capture the moment, which must be the core of any presentation or talk or poster, but supplemented with excellent language skills. Note that future employers, as well as examiners are always impressed by sincerity and clarity. One aspect that I will emphasize here is that in science, it is best to be as honest and upfront as possible. To say `I do not know the answer' to a question is better than to hazard an unreasonable guess, or give an answer that the veteran listener would immediately know to be untrue.

Many of the principles enunciated above can also be translated effectively into technical writing. It is important to be concise and crisp, and to the point. You could imitate the style of Ernest Hemmingway who was the master of this. Let me again emphasize that in scientific writing, you are not competing in an essay writing competition. But rather you are writing in such a way that the reader and other members of the community are struck by the importance of your scientific work. Most papers today are organized along the lines of an abstract, introduction, formalism and state of knowledge, the new technique or equipment, results coming out of the new technique or instrumental measurements, modelling the data and interpretation, and validation in terms of a model or support to a new model or furthering a new model, followed by discussion and conclusions. Clarity and simplicity, along with precision and excellent language skills, without unnecessary verbiage will make a paper acceptable even to the most critical referee and reviewer. It is a good idea to never hide details, and be as upfront as possible with all the assumptions that have gone into your work. Being secretive and telling half-truths brings out the worst in reviewers and referees. Note that you will often be at the mercy of editors and referees and it is best to win them over to your side. Paying attention to detail and meticulousness will also assist in you getting your papers accepted.

Of great importance are Acknowledgements,where you honestly and truthfully acknowledge all those who have helped you. Of equal equal importance are the bibliography and references. This latter also requires a lot of devotion, in order to accredit to one's academic predecessors their due contributions. One of the things that I have observed in IISc in the generations of students that I am acquainted with is that they do not pay enough attention to the authors, whose papers they use and cite. It is not easy to remember names of those from other cultures and other countries, but it is an integral part of our work to cite the literature properly.

It is also worth developing good work habits, keeping an online diary or journal that you update every day, or couple of times a week, keeping track of your bibliography and making detailed notes on your work, be it laboratory work or your calculations, electronically or otherwise. When you want to actually put together all your work, this would come in handy. Also, developing a resource base of this type, would make your eventual thesis writing so much simpler. In order to meet the objectives laid out earlier, a lot of ground work and constant hardwork will come in handy, and will lead to a good use of your time.

Please note that DST has also advertised a scheme recently that encourages scholars to write about their work and popularize it. I quote from the blurb on the recently launched AWSAR programme: `` If you are a PhD scholar or a post-doc, you surely want to relate your work to the larger context of Science and Society and convey it to the people in a way that enhances their understanding, appreciation and excitement for science while giving you an opportunity (AWSAR) to maybe even win some cool prizes!''

With these words, I wish you all a great stay in IISc, lots of learning and lots of results, which I would like to see written up and talked about!

Some resources: See talk by Dani Or on `Introduction to Scientific Communication', and Caltech site that has a manual on principles of scientific writing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

nanopolitan: Editorials by Colleagues

nanopolitan: Editorials by Colleagues: These days, Current Science features only guest editorials by invited contributors, and it's great to see my IISc colleagues being feat...

Saturday, October 31, 2015

My former student I. Sentitemsu Imsong

As you all know from mails and from my facebook posts, I am bereft of one of my earliest students. Imsong had just accepted a position in IIT Guwahati and while transiting through Bangalore, was taken seriously ill and in septic shock from which he never came out. His publications can be found on INSPIRE. A recent tribute to him is here. I have never seen such an outpouring of grief, solidarity and wishes as I have seen from responses to the facebook post, emails, phone calls to me and to my other students and his well-wishers. It is best to honour him by emulating his sincerity, simplicity and honesty. The tragedy is that in all honesty, Imsong had real child-like simplicity. I repeat below words from our close collaborator Dr. Irinel Caprini: ``I can't belive that Imsong is no longer in this world... It's a pity that such a good, kind, honest and clever boy died so soon and in such tragic circumstances. '' I can hardly put it better myself.