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.


Arunn said...

but i guess it is a bit too late for me... ;(

But good to learn of your perseverance...

Anant said...


Thanks for your comment.

I guess that at the time I made a change I was
not too old. However, I think that once a track
is chosen, one should not flip-flop too often.
Then there is the danger of never getting anything
done. [Sort of runs contrary to the advice of
Hamming on which I had an earlier post.]
But I guess you know what I mean.

I must also add that over the years I am now
convinced that many people move into physics
due to the popularization of the subject in the
mass media. Such popularization is actually
very dangerous, and does not alert students
to the perils of highly eclectic pursuits. In fact
in my middle age I feel that no matter what
subject one is working in, one should simply
try to go a good job of it, and bother too much
whether it is 'pure' or 'applied' or 'basic' or
'fundamental'. The brain as well as the heart
should guide one through research work.
Enough said.


Arunn said...

yes, u r correct - including the pop-physics...

I enjoy what i do now... ;)

Aswin said...

Nice to hear your experience of switching to physics after doing eng @iitm. I just wanted to chip in and say that iitm's system is much more flexible these days. We have minor streams(i guess this was prof.ananth's idea), some free electives etc. Further playing around would depend on the dept/facad.

Also, most science research institutes dont discriminate against eng. students while choosing people for their summer UG programs. This is a good thing and I hope it stays this way.

Further, we have net in our rooms!
On the whole, i guess it will be much easier for people to make the switch.

Anant said...


Thanks for your message. I was not aware of
the 'minor streams' at IITM; after all it is over
21 years since I graduated and have never been
back in the recent past, except for a walk through
the campus in 1996. I think young people
experience pulls in several directions, the poles
of attraction being money, comfortable lives
preferably overseas, intellectual satisfaction,
simply working on problems they like, etc..
The main question is that of orienting their
energies and ensuring that the path they choose
will provide them a reasonable livelihood.
In this context, I think that the last issue is
one on which policy makers need to deliberate.
It is all very well to tell young people to choose
science, but the careers options need to be spelt
out in a reasonably clear way. This is a
particularly serious problem for women who
will enter sciences as their 'careers' will come
into conflict with their 'families'. See recent
articles on Nanopolitan.


Anonymous said...

Other notable ex-IITM'ers include Sathyanarayana (ET).He went to Cornell if memory serves. Now in global finance. His photo graces an inner page of Risk magazine, a very prestigious publication and a tribute to his hard work, albeit in a different field. -Anon.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post. However I would like to know in a greater detail why you think that the quality of students is declining. How does a student of this age compare with a student from older generation? *What do you expect from a good student (both masters and research scholar)?* Also what causes this decline in quality of the students? Do you think that students are less motivated nowadays? Can you suggest any solution?

Anant said...

Anon1: Thanks for your comment.

Anon2: I think it is very hard to prove one way or another that the quality of students has declined relative to, say 40 years ago. However, what can be proved is that the very best students do not opt for a career in science as it is perceived to be too hard and that it takes too long to settle in. Internationally one can see people of Indian origin, schooled and raised in India populate engineering departments right across the specturm of quality and all over the world in large numbers. The equivalent of the Nobel prize in physics in computer science, the Nevanlinna prize was won by Madhu Sudan who is an IITD alumnus. Of course all this is circumstantial evidence. I think rather than lament this state of affairs one can ask what done should do with the available pool of talent. I think there should be career options available at many stages. There should be gateways at the M. Sc. stage, the M. Phil. stage, the Ph. D. stage and post-doc stage in our Defence Labs, National labs, DAE establishments for a start [I am talking only about physics; corresponding solutions can be found in biology, replacing DAE -> ICMR, Defence labs by, e.g., National Institute of Nutrition, etc.]. We should aim not just for an elite which competes internationally but a broad base of well trained individuals, out of which some will excel and some will simply do good work. There should be a move away from the star system, so that the comparatively less gifted should not feel discouraged and leave the field, but see themselves as contributing. The Univesity system needs to be revamped; it should not just be a place where people collect salaries and go home and give tuitions for JEE admissions. Those who carry out research and their teaching diligently should be encouraged. This is the first few things that I can think of.

gaddeswarup said...

Sorry for the late response. I saw Gerard 't Hooft's prescription a few months ago and it seemed formidable. My experience from mathematics is different. I wonder whether we put too much emphasis on knowledge. In TIFR we were told to learn a lot of stuff, much of which we did not use later. What we needed we had to pick up later on. I remember M.S. Raghunathan coming back from USA around 1967 shocked that Dennis Sullivan in Princeton did not know even sheaves. Sullivan already did an outstanding thesis and went on to do much more and won a Fields medal. It is also my observation that many American mathematicians seem to know much less mathematics than many from TIFR but do much better mathematics. I am not sure what mix of knowledge, training and temperament is needed for good reasearch. Overloading with too many courses and knowledge may be a hindrance. May be just enough to keep the spark going. My own experience is that I have been able to pick up new areas even after the age of fifty. But it may be different with physics.

Anant said...

Thanks for your comment. I guess 't Hooft's article is a bit of an oversell, but it is interesting to know that this is the viewpoint of a very successful physicist. It is also true that if one spends all one's energy studying, where is the time to do something new? I guess a balance has to be struck somewhere, but a basic minimum is really required. However, in mathematics also it seems to me that, atleast according to popular reports, that highly succesful results have been obtained by using techniques from one field and developing them further for applications in another. All accounts of Wiles's proof suggest that he borrowed all kinds of results from seemingly unrelated fields, which means that he was either aware of in one way or another, or subliminally of these results and was able to ue them. I don't know if Perelman also did this. There could be many fields where such broad knowledge is not necessary?

gaddeswarup said...

Thanks for the response,
First a correction.Sullivan did not win a Fields medal.
I guess that there are different types of important work in mathematics. There have been important contributions (for example, the solution of the l Poincare conjecture in dimensions bigger than four) which does not even need calculus. Wiles and Perelman, I have not studied though Perelman's work is in my area. My impression that it is imagination and technical power, main approach is usually credited to Richard Hamilton.
But I think that physicists need more mathematics than working mathematicians (nobody really follws Weil's advice) and so it may be different game in physics. Moreover, I should not emphasize too much on how little may be needed to do good or even great work. The reason being that many of the researchers are also involved in teaching and formulation of curriculam and it is good if such people have broad perspective.

Anant said...

Thanks for your comment. I recently read about the work of Manjul Bhargava and it seems to me somehow his outstanding results seem to be of the category that do not require a whole lot of prior knowledge; remarkable ingenuity, etc.. It is my suspicion, however, that such things simply cannot work in theoretical physics. Perhaps in experimental work, a highly talented young person can make breakthroughs. For instance, Eric Cornell who won the Nobel Prize is a relatively young person who is a pioneed in Bose-Einstein condensation. String theory also seems to have a lot of bright young sparks, but I don't know how that field works.

Suresh Govindarajan said...

I will add a few more names to your list of IITM engineering graduates who switched to Physics.

R. Shankar, currently at Yale;
Shailesh Chandrasekharan currently at Duke
S. Prem Kumar, currently in the UK (Durham?)
Kalyana Rama, who is currently at IMSc


Anant said...


Thanks for the update. My point was not
to have a comprehensive list, but just
some anecdotal information, to illustrate
my point.

Anant said...

Good to see you here Ananth!

Anonymous said...

5 IITS ( now maybe 7-8) + 3 IISERS + IISc + TIFR + few good univ ~20 places. I think that adds a lot of pressure for a reasonably good physicist. There are innumberable univs even after top 20 ( in US) who sometimes do very good science.
And we need more attractive research labs govt and private to give jobs who don't want to teach only in academia.
Solution to many problems...we need more good and reasonably good places ( labs, univs etc). 20 is too few !! This will help in changing our statistics vis-a-vis China too

arun v s said...

i just finished my class 12 and am evaluating various options . i am very interested in physics. how would you rank the following : an integrated 5 yr Msc in physics at IITK , joining IISER , a btech in engineering physics from some iit.
which would be the best option ?

Anant said...

Arun: it would not be proper for me to use this as a career couselling service. You must speak to competent authorities. Best regards,Anant