Thursday, November 23, 2006

Becoming a professional physicist

So here are my thoughts on how to go about trying to become
a professional physicist. Now you may be wondering why BA
is qualified to write about this, especially when there is an
article on becoming a good theoretical physicist
by none other than Nobel laureate Gerard 't Hooft. [ As usual I found
the link from this article from my friend Abi's blog Nanopolitan.]

The reasons are of course spurred by the discussions we have on
students and the supposedly declining quality of students and
so on and so forth, topic which occupy so much of our time
which could otherwise be meaningfully spent, including
of course writing more articles on blogs. But jokes apart,
let me spell out why I think I should put down my thoughts
on this subject. Now any serious student of physics is well
advised to read 't Hooft's article on this subject. He lays down
completely what is the basic minimum that a person hoping
to have a career in theoretical physics should know. Also, one
has to give some advice to students entering the subject in India.
I think 't Hooft's advice pretty much universal. The main point
is that the students who think that they are lacking the background
should, after reading his article, identify the subjects where their
weaknesses lie and go about fixing the weaknesses.

Now how did I, a student of Chemical Engineering in the 1980's make
the transition? Undoubtedly a very risky decision to have taken, having
taken it, I did set about it quite methodically. I registered for 3 courses
of the M. Sc in physics program and went through the course work
meticulously. There was no internet those days, and no advice from
't Hooft. So I wrote to some American Univesities for their course
booklets, both undergraduate and graduate course description, and
basically drew mental Venn diagrams and isolated those course which
defined a basic minimum. Many long hours were spent in the IIT Madras
library looking up textbooks spelt out in those course booklets and
simply sitting down and working out missing steps and learning
the basics. I think that this technique was very useful for someone
who was not supremely gifted, but was willing to sit down and
learn things. [Of course you may ask why I did not get the course
booklet from IIT Kanpur, but it just did not occur to me. Perhaps their
5 year M. Sc. program course contents were superior to the result
of the mental Venn diagrams that I used.] I must also emphasize
that one great skill I did learn from the B. Tech. at IIT Madras was
problem solving, a skill that is useful whether one goes in physics,
managements, finance, computer science, IAS or what have you.
Acknowledgements are also due to the kind advice, help and
encouragement of my teachers there, Profs. V. Balakrishnan,
G. Rangarajan and the late Prof. S. Swaminathan. Prof. M. S. Ananth
who is now director of IIT Madras was also very encouraging of
my decision and was great to talk to.

I, of course, was not the only one to have taken this risky path; mighty
seniors like Ganapathy Murthy now at Kentucky, Uma Sankar at
IIT Bombay, Arun K. Gupta who went to Caltech, and some what
junior folks including Ramesh Abhiraman who went to Yale,
Anand Subburaman who went to Syracuse, Suresh Govindarajan
now at IIT Madras, Vasant Natarajan a colleague across in
Dept. of Physics at IISc also charted this course. It would be interesting
to know how they made their transitions.

The moral of this story is that if this worked for me, it will work
for anyone. In other words, today if we get students from perceived
weak backgrounds, and if they were to put themselves with some
assistance through such a grind, they would as well as any one who
today is a professional physicist. Such professional physicists, and
for that matter scientists and engineeres are the need of the hour
for the country. This formula will work also for those who will not
be able to go to the elite programs of the IISERs and the integrated
M. Sc. programs of Mysore University and University of Hyderabad.

Quote from Andre Weil

At lunch, we were, as always, talking about students
and problems in teaching courses and the perceived
lack of response and interest from students, etc..
This subject could easily be in the category of
the 'Zendejas brothers' (source unknown: heard it
only from the authoritative source Abi at lunch),
in other words, easily a winning candidate
for the bore of the year award. However, coincidentally
I ran into the following quote yesterday from Andre Weil
the famous mathematician in an article on the
Mathematics Curriculum,"The American student...suffers
under some severe handicaps,...Apart from his lack of
earlier training in mathematics...,he suffers chiefly
from his lack of training in the fundamental skills ---
reading, writing and speaking...". I hope to write
on the subject of overcoming this handicap (I should
know, I suppose (?!)) to find a career in physics.
Now I have to rush off to a seminar.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


On Blogbharti I found the link to this unspeakable horror.
The only requiem I want to offer the victims is silence.